The far right across the world is mixing and matching racist, conspiratorial rhetoric with little regard for national origins. Tom Friedman’s flat earth is here, but instead of pluralism it’s prejudice that has gone global.
A billboard seen with portraits of then European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros and a slogan reading “You too have a right to know what Brussels is preparing” on February 22, 2019 as part of an anti-immigration campaign in Budapest, Hungary. (Laszlo Balogh / Getty images)
Earlier this month, the official Twitter/X account of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — India’s far-right governing party — posted an image depicting opposition leader Rahul Gandhi as a puppet of Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. It was not the first time the country’s ruling Hindu nationalists had invoked such rhetoric. Last summer, after a meeting between Gandhi and a well-known human rights activist in New York, India’s minister of minority affairs fumed: “When it is clear to every Indian what George Soros intends to do, why is Rahul Gandhi hobnobbing with those who are funded by Soros?”
On its face, such incidents are a bit perplexing. As Emily Tamkin, author of 2020’s The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for Open Society, noted in July, India does not have a history of antisemitism analogous to that of the United States or the various countries in Europe where Soros conspiracies have become prevalent. While it’s certainly not surprising to see far-right politicians draw on racist conspiracy theories, it’s nonetheless a little odd given the context. Indeed, when onetime foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal faced a backlash over his invocation of antisemitic tropes in a salvo against the Wall Street Journal, he sounded genuinely perplexed, asking: “How does antisemitism come into all this?”
In making sense of the uptick in antisemitic conspiracism in India, Tamkin explains:
One could argue that the tropes of “the Jew” as perpetual outsider or manipulator or all-controlling force are less in the air and water in India than they are in other parts of the world where anti-Soros conspiracy theories have taken hold. But because they are in the air and water of the world, it is easy to pull them and use them for the Indian context when politically convenient.
What is remarkable about antisemitic conspiracy theories is that they can function whether or not the tropes that they rely on are innately understood to be about Jewish people or not.
Even removed from its usual cultural context, the Soros conspiracy thus manages to retain both the same basic structure and appeal to right-wing nationalists. “In the United States,” Tamkin concludes, “Soros is accused of hijacking democracy. In India, he is charged with trying to destabilize India. . . . [I]n both cases, anyone with a perceived connection to him is depicted as anti-national. That is how antisemitic conspiracy theories function. Whether or not these theories are actively understood to be antisemitic by their proponents does not change this logic.”
The whole phenomenon ultimately invites wider questions about the development of the global far right and its burgeoning lingua franca of reactionary grievance. Beyond the newfound preoccupation of BJP politicians with Soros, examples abound of right-wing hard-liners drawing on the same arsenal of tropes, idioms, and concerns — blissfully unconcerned, or perhaps simply unaware, of either their cultural specificity or the contradictions inherent in importing the nationalist idioms of one country’s right into another’s.
Thus, figures on Canada’s far right now denounce the specter of “critical race theory” and a major right-wing gathering in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary can boast of offering a “Woke Free Zone.” Orbán himself, meanwhile, can travel to the United States and declare, “The globalists can all go to hell. . . . I have come to Texas!” to an adoring audience that recognizes a man born in Székesfehérvár as a fellow militant in the nationalist struggle against foreign incursion. QAnon, seemingly the most quintessentially American of conspiracy theories, has displayed the same remarkable capacity to transcend borders and cultures — among other things, inspiring a bizarre 2022 coup attempt in Germany where adherents had somehow convinced themselves that the Allied occupation of 1945 was ongoing and would soon be vanquished by a US military commanded by Donald Trump.
The extent to which this growing pool of shared grievance is mainly the product of Americanization or a more complicated cross-pollination between different reactionary nationalist traditions is certainly debatable. Regardless, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the consolidation of rhetoric and ideology that is now occurring throughout the global far right — in a superlative irony, thanks to none other than globalism itself.
In 2005, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman published his widely discussed book The World Is Flat. Though characteristically convoluted and premised on an utterly nonsensical metaphor, Friedman’s clunkily written bestseller nevertheless articulated an influential current of triumphalist thinking about what a US-led, post–Cold War world order would supposedly bring. Nation-states, Friedman argued, were becoming more interconnected and global society was thus being steadily “flattened.”
Stripped of its many circumlocutions, the book’s argument was basically just a byzantine restatement of what neoliberal ideologues had claimed during the 1990s: that the increasing interconnectedness of economies, supply chains, and information nodes — while unavoidably disruptive — would gradually establish a level playing field between nations, foster pluralism, and reduce conflict. Suffused with McDonald’s and Dell computers, it was believed, every corner of the globe could now evolve into a market-based liberal democracy resembling the United States. The eschaton had arrived, courtesy of Exxon, Wal-Mart, and AT&T.
Like most of the utopian predictions associated with the neoliberal project, very little about this prophecy has actually come true. Far from leveling the playing field, the export of US capitalism has only exacerbated inequalities between countries and intensified it within them. From Narendra Modi’s India to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, as in the United States, reactionary nationalism has also shown itself to be perfectly compatible with neoliberalism and in many cases its natural ally.
In effect, Friedman’s “flattening” has arrived in monkey’s paw form. Prejudice, not pluralism, is becoming truly cosmopolitan, and a growing movement of far-right nationalists from New Delhi and Budapest to Washington and Ankara is demonstrating a remarkable ability to fuse together a common project across linguistic and cultural divides. As the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor remarked of the BJP’s recent foray into the Soros conspiracy: “It’s 2023, and the world is flat, but not in the way Tom Friedman imagined it. Instead, it’s that right-wing nationalists everywhere seem to have arrived upon the same set of grievances and the same language to articulate them.”Original post