The Rise of the Capital-State and Neo-Nationalism: A New Polanyian Moment

In this article, Oleksandr Svitych presents his new book, The Rise of the Capital-state and Neo-nationalism, third installment of the Global Populism series by Brill. By looking at cases such as Jobbik and Fidesz, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, and progressive parties in South Korea, Svitych follows Polanyi and observes the effects of social marketization while answering the following questions: What is neo-nationalism, how can we contrast it, and what does it have to do with populism?


The Rise of the Capital-state and Neo-nationalism is a study of what I call neo-nationalism from a Polanyian perspective. It is the third volume published by Brill as part of a timely Global Populisms series (you can check it out at this page). Polanyian approaches take inspiration from the intellectual legacy of Karl Polanyi, an Austro-Hungarian political economist, historian and anthropologist, best known for his book The Great Transformation. They are part of a larger critical political economic tradition which problematizes taken-for-granted socio-economic structures, exposes relations of power, and “questions the unquestioned.” The book’s key message is that neo-nationalism, which has been sweeping the globe, is driven by the renewed “great transformation” of increased marketization, erosion of protective social mechanisms, and associated perceptions of economic insecurity and social decline.

the great transformation

In the book, I argue that neo-nationalism is on the rise because it taps into a popular demand for controlling the markets and strengthening the welfare state. In this regard, there are five major inter-related points that the book makes.

The project’s first contribution is adapting and applying a Polanyian political economic perspective to the study of neo-nationalism. Having used the Polanyian “double movement” thesis (market expansion and societal protection against it) as the starting point, I bring together different levels of analysis – structural, voters’ perceptions, and parties’ strategies – to develop a multi-layered account of neo-nationalism. While many studies of the radical right and left parties focus on either “demand” or “supply” side factors, this book reveals the interplay between the two. It marshals extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence to demonstrate how marketization of societies breeds economic insecurity and neo-nationalist sentiments exploited by politicians. The book’s case studies include Jobbik and Fidesz in Hungary, Marine Le Pen’s Front National (renamed to National Rally) in France, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in Australia, and progressive parties in South Korea.

Second, I stress that we need to be cautious in the use of the “populism” label. I insist on the term “neo-nationalism” to underscore nationalism as the key feature, which is combined with populism and radicalism. Moreover, ideology needs to be taken seriously. As the book demonstrates, a large segment of the “radical right” has shifted away from the market ideologically, programmatically, and rhetorically. “Populism” is a misleading term to refer to the anti-establishment parties, movements, and leaders as diverse as Podemos in Spain, Front National in France, or Donald Trump in the US. Researchers must avoid lumping together authoritarian neo-liberal populists such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán, Erdoğan or Modi with right-wing neo-nationalists of social protection, such as Marine Le Pen or Pauline Hanson, or left-wing ones, such as Jean Luc Mélenchon or Bernie Sanders. Finally, “populism” conceals more long-term and structural causes of discontent with the status quo, especially when cast as the source of “democratic decline” by researchers and media.

The third contribution of the book is to theorize transformations of the state which enable the rise of neo-nationalism. The book takes into account key changes in the global political economy while keeping a comparative focus on the national level. Through a novel data index spanning several decades, my analysis reveals what I call uneven convergence – a spectrum of distinct political economies unified by the logic of increased marketization. The case studies discuss in detail how distinct institutional legacies, such as socialism in Hungary, dirigisme in France, liberalism in Australia, and developmentalism in South Korea interact with voters’ attitudes and parties’ political strategies to produce neo-nationalism. In dialogue with the International Relations and Comparative Politics literatures, my findings challenge the neoliberal homogenization and varieties of capitalism arguments, respectively.

cover svitych

Fourth, The Rise of the Capital-state and Neo-nationalism contributes to an ongoing debate about the role of economic versus socio-cultural factors in fuelling neo-nationalism. The book demonstrates that both the working and portions of the middle classes were made insecure by the structural economic changes experienced as a real or perceived loss of social standing. Supporters of the radical right, in particular, are concerned with both redistribution and recognition issues. Furthermore, my statistical analysis and case studies show that perceptions of social dislocation have reinforced the need to sharpen social boundaries. Through blaming the “Other,” neo-nationalists sought to channel away the frustrations of middle- and working-class voters. These parties and politicians were successful precisely because they translated economic decline into loss of identity and status and offered neo-nationalist solutions. The book shows, then, that cultural sensibilities do not exist in a vacuum. These findings challenge the post-materialist interpretation of populist nationalism (which gives primacy to cultural factors) and the “modernization losers” theory (which overlooks anxieties of the “winners”). 

Fifth and final, the book considers the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the neo-nationalist blowback. More importantly, it brings forward the point that the pandemic was enabled by the structural processes and the associated lifting of protective mechanisms discussed in the book. At the same time, the final chapter emphasizes that, like in every crisis, opportunities for change have emerged. Strengthening state welfare policies, readjusting labour market arrangements to protect workers, and regulating capital movement can rebuild solidary within national communities. These are unprecedented times both for bold policy experiments, such as the universal basic income, and for imagining more just and emancipatory paths away from the current socio-economic order. To re-iterate the book’s key message in conclusion, the neo-nationalist conundrum requires a radical solution – a true humane and democratic alternative to marketization of state and society.


svitych

Oleksandr Svitych is an Associate Professor at the School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His main research interest is the relationship between markets and social stability, spanning the fields of political economy, political philosophy, and political sociology. Besides social sciences, he finds meaning in development work, community service, and martial arts.

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