Anne Applebaum has written a very important piece, a few days ago on The Washington Post. Building on the recent Austrian presidential election, won by the Green candidate with a handful of votes against the “far right” one, she wonders how the latter should be described and points out that a fair description would actually be: national socialist.

The term has been used in a very – let’s say – derogatory sense since 1945. But Applebaum is too smart and sensible to mean that Mr Hofer, the “far right” candidate, is an epigone of Adolf Hitler.

By national socialism I don’t mean Hitler, and I’m not talking about the Holocaust. I don’t even mean fascism, although of course we could eventually get there. I’m talking instead about a political philosophy which combines “nationalism” — a strong belief in the significance or even superiority of one’s own ethnic group or nation-state — with “socialism,” the belief that the state should intervene very heavily in the national economy, and maybe in other realms, too.


More often than not, these candidates are called “populist”, or “far right wingers”. I sense that Applebaum fears that this is an easy game, on the part of left-wing commentators, to associate those people with “neoliberalism” (the bogeyman of the day, though the word is very ambiguous and I for one never quite understand what it is meant by it). But the likes of Mr Hofer or Marine Le Pen in France or Matteo Salvini in Italy actually despise neoliberalism, in the broad sense of reforms aiming at opening the economy, free trade, liberalisations.

Applebaum observes:

For most of the past half-century, hard nationalism and state-dominated economics were not linked. No longer: All across Europe, the parties that used to be known as “far right” are rapidly remodeling themselves, adopting policy and language that once would have sounded Marxist. Marine Le Pen’s National Front party now holds annual rallies on May 1, the old international socialists’ holiday. At these events, she also attacks “neoliberal” policies and “globalized elites.” In their place, she wants a “muscular state,” which taxes imports, advocates protectionism and nationalizes foreign companies and banks.

I think the same is actually true on the left side of the political spectrum. Relatively free movement of capital makes the work of the welfare-regulatory state all the more difficult, calling for international cooperation to effectively ban or regulate some business practices. Relatively free movement of people, on the other hand, weakens the legitimacy of the welfare state. Europeans (but I would guess Americans, too) tend to grow suspicious of giving away the same kind of welfare benefits they enjoy to new comers in their own country. People tend to think immigration fluxes are bigger than they are, sure, but in this way they tend to develop a genuine fear over the financial sustainability of welfare arrangements. In most of Europe, demography is what makes the welfare state all the more demanding, in terms of tax contributions. But the fact that people who do not belong to “our” national community may benefit from it, is what makes it look all the more “unfair” in the eyes of many.

I don’t want to suggest that these concerns are necessarily well pondered: but they are there. Left wing parties are currently torn apart between the ambition of integrating immigrants in the current welfare system, aiming to make them “welfare dependents” and therefore in theory more disciplined voters, and the need to keep their ideology totem, the welfare state, in shape. Calls for “global social justice” seems to have very little appeal for people. If you look at it sympathetically, this is a political transposition of sentiment Adam Smith pointed our long time again: we tend to care more about people we know and we identify with, than about people we do not perceive as similar to us.

One possible criticism of Applebaum is that, in practical political choices, in the past the “right” has never quite abandoned nationalism that sharply. But indeed, if you think about their rhetoric, we have had many examples of parties that, though upholding “national values” or favouring, for example, a strong military (a kind of natural consequence of nationalism), at least paid lip service to an open economy. Now no longer.

So, the nationalists are going to be more socialist, because they want to vindicate the power of the nation state in taking control of the national economy, and the socialists are going to be more nationalist, because strengthening regulation and advancing redistribution is all the more difficult in supranational arrangements, where a cooperative understanding is seldom reached.

I think the diagnosis is fair; I couldn’t make a prognosis. But I fear there is a symmetric problem for libertarians. If we take Applebaum’s points seriously, as we should, we are put in a very awkward position: which is defending the status quo, made of relatively free international trade plus relatively weak supranational institutions, as the least bad of all possible worlds. And yet libertarians are highly critical of the status quo and won’t feel well in the company of the current global elites.

At any rate, it is useful to call things by their proper name. “National socialism”, in this case.