Nationalism vs. Globalism - A False Dichotomy Part I

To Part II ›

It is the early 2020s and the world is literally on fire. At the same time the political establishments in much of the West and its semiperipheral vassals in the post-Communist East are powerless to act and seem genuinely incapable to understand their own predicament, even though they only narrowly survived the so-called “right-populist” onslaught of the mid-to-late 2010s, even that only because of the pandemic. That force is far from finished and I am certain the future crises will lend it a helping hand to grab power; but the centre takes no heed and acts as if it won. In the meantime, a discourse emerged that the now very obvious problems that we now face can best be dealt with by returning to politics at the level of the nation-state, through a rebirth of nationalism, and a rejection of “globalism”, or policies, agreements, etc. on a trans-/international scale. While the “right-populists” originated this opposition, it seems to spread everywhere at an alarming rate – even mainstream politicians and self-professed leftists seem to adopt it – but it is based on faulty reasoning and ideological mystification.

Rally for the Union in 2016

Of course, to me the “right-populist” wave’s political syncretism seems profoundly suspicious, combining old ideas that have fermented in the unsavory underbelly (but repressed by the centrist establishment) such as those described here, as well as some stolen directly from the old left (but on which the current left has been passing on for a while, focusing rather on unpopular single-issues). And while in the West the “right-populist” wave was followed by an energetic “left-populism” (which however went no further than gesturing towards reviving the welfare state and was ultimately unsuccessful even in that), in Eastern Europe the descent into ethno-religious nationalism has only intensified since. Given the precarious economic conditions and the never-ending crises exacerbated by the COVID crisis, in Romania it seems that the rise of the first genuine “right-populist” party, AUR, has been propelled in no small part by a last-ditch effort by the petite bourgeoisie to avoid their own imminent proletarisation in the wake of COVID (but mostly its incompetent handling by the Orban government).

This class has in Romania always existed in a state of perilous precarity, living on the edge so to speak; gambling their meagre personal wealth (mostly land and real estate returned after de-collectivisation, or money made in the 90’s during “transition”) on local enterprises functioning at the edge of legality just to turn a profit. They are under a double assault of international big capital and big government, increasingly squeezed out of their piece of the pie. This squeeze got most extreme when last year’s lockdowns hit, and many went out of business when the government failed to bail them out – instead of recognising this as a long term trend within capitalism (not to say as a result of their own campaigning for a shrinkage of the government, which naturally resulted in one unable or unwilling to help them), they rather violently lashed out against all sorts of bogeymen: LGBT people, foreigners (or even people with foreign-sounding names, like then-Prime Minister Ludovic Orban or President Klaus Iohannis), the medical staff managing the COVID crisis, etc. They fed into the multitude of the unemployed, faced with a labour market fraught with irreconcilable contradictions – on one hand a shortage and glorification of “essential workers”, on the other their ruthless, discretionary exploitation; on one hand an urban corporate class urged (and perfectly able) to work from home, on the other the in-betweeners furloughed or outright fired.

Perhaps some would be eager to see them gone. After all, these are the local business owners, people who pretend they are your friend, all the while paying you below market price while knowing very well your wage is not enough for you to live decently. These are the local bosses who pay minimum wage and then add “something on the side” in a greasy envelope. It is mostly them who have done innumerable dirty deals in the previous two decades with local governments, often backed by PSD and PNL local politicians. My personal take is they are, at core, people deluded into becoming small-time capitalists without really having what it takes (individually and capital-wise) to actually compete – in other words, they are capitalists who are bad at capitalism. Nevertheless, their relatively high position in the provincial political and economic order makes them invested in local and regional customs and culture to some extent, some becoming patrons of local culture and having a long-term relationship with local organisations through workplaces, family ties and churches; at the same time it makes them suspicious of any progressive agenda coming from the major cities, associating it with top-down authoritarian challenges to their conservative values, economic challenges to their livelihoods and prestige, and as competition from international capital. In the past they hav been the traditional base of the large electoral parties (PSD, PNL) outside of the big cities. Their collapse and conversion to full-on reactionary anti-systemic politics is, accordingly, a sign of things to come and thus not at all something to celebrate.

Rather than demonising this class, it is in my view more useful to analyse the category most associated with their newfound support for the “right-populist” AUR party, nationalism, and its purported opposite, globalism, not as independent political stances or forces in the world, but rather as a rough label applied to the pincers squeezing them out of relevance: i) accelerating rural-urban and small-town to metropolis migration ii) accelerating Romania-EU migration iii) the crisis of post-1989 Romanian national identity. All three tensions were exacerbated during the COVID crisis – rural labourers were furloughed or fired from their city jobs, scurrying for refuge or unable to pay the rent; seasonal workers were sent home unpaid or exploited under draconian conditions in the EU; and the centre-right neoliberal coalition espousing the values of rational government and civic nationalism turned quasi-authoritarian for a while during the lockdowns (and I would argue it quite liked it), allowing other nationalisms to emerge as a credible anti-systemic stance. While the first two can be explained by uneven domestic development, itself caused by the influx of international capital beginning with the early 2000s, the latter is a deep wound in the national psyche best discussed separately.

The class composition of AUR’s base and the nature of the mystification discussed above are hardly surprising, given similar conclusions drawn for other “right-populist” movements in other countries, such as the US, [1] as well as the historic demographics of neo-Fascist or nationalist parties. What is troubling indeed is the sophistication and the radical nature of AUR’s ideology, when compared to past post-1989 nationalist parties. While some (PRM, PP-DD, Gheorghe Funar) engaged in extreme language and rhetoric, there are no instances known to me of ideologically-driven forces on the far-right, except for fringe non-parliamentary groups such as ND (The New Right) [2]. Indeed its leaders have been, first of all, shrewd politicians – they have consistently curated a dual profile. To build popular support and evolve into a mass movement, they presented a populist message centred on the preservation of human dignity for the numerous precarious Romanians furloughed during the lockdowns, or those working abroad (a demographic that has been consistently let down, and in some cases even demonised by the Romanian political establishment), as well as on calls to end the lockdowns and re-start the Romanian economy (an interest shared by the provincial bosses and their dependent workers). In their core, elite circle however, there is a plurality of radical-right ideologues, promoting all manner of terrifying visions: from hardcore anti-vaxxers [3] to open arch-incel mysoginists [4] and Holocaust deniers and admirers of the 1930s Fascist Iron Guard movement [5]. A powerful religious (mostly Orthodox, but also neo-protestant and Catholic-backed) ideological core is also present from previous “civil society” single-issue movements such as the CpF (Coalition for the Family), an anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ pressure group active in the mid-2010s that nearly succeeded in modifying the constitution to render gay marriage illegal (despite it not actually being statutorily allowed). Thus it is apparent to me that the membership of the party is much, much more radical and right-wing than the actual electoral base, as well as much more given to kooky ideas and extremism. One issue on which they all seem to be in agreement however is this very notion of nationalism, and opposition to “globalism”.

This lack of clear definitions and blurring of boundaries should remind one that confusion in the categories of public leads to empty rhetoric. I feel that an insistence on the nationalism/globalism binary on the part of such forces as AUR is one instance of this, meant to cast any trans- or supranational project or its domestic recognition as inherently opposed to the interests of “the people” (defined in an ethno-religious-linguistic essentialist way). The globalist threat thus contains overtones of both “the great unwashed”, who covet the position and privilege of the small-time provincial capitalist (sometimes cast by AUR as an ethnic or deviant sexual minority and thus excluded from the organic folk-community of the Nation, so as not to offend their working-class sympathisers), and the sinister power of global capital (represented by “civic-minded” dystopian social engineer-capitalists such as George Soros and Bill Gates, sometimes combined with more or less explicit conspiracy theorising or economic and religious antisemitism) [6].

Thus, I would argue, the collapse of neoliberal globalisation and proletarian internationalism into the category of “globalism” is one more political mystification that must be fought and debunked. There is a world of difference (excuse the terrible pun) between a sense of solidarity and potential for collective action based on shared economic and political goals between people of different geographic, cultural and linguistic origins on one hand, and the view of Davos men on the other who regard nations and governments as obstacles and leeches, obstructing and syphoning away from the international flows of capital. The first is a recognition of supra-national interests, which are class interests; the latter are the interests of capital, which are, in truth, to paraphrase Mark Fisher, the interests of no one at all, merely the demands of a certain logic.

To Part II ›


  1. Doug Henwood, Jacobin Mag, “Take Me to Your Leader: The Rot of the American Ruling Class”,
  2. That is not to say there were no ideologically far-right figures embedded in the establishment, or lurking in its background. There were, and some of them, such as the philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu, head of the prominent Humanitas Publishing House, even ended up being associated with AUR through several of his disciples, forcing him to denounce the formation. It can only be speculated what the actual relationship there is.
  3. Florin Puscas,, “Diana Şoşoacă a făcut show în faţa Guvernului, pe muzica Pink Floyd: We don’t need no education” (“Diana Şoşoacă – AUR senator, my note – performs show in front of the government, plays Pink Floyd: We don’t need no education”),
  4. Mihai Iovanel, Scena9, “Bivolii încinși și răstoaca cu nămol răcoros” (“The buffalo in heat and the pool of cool mud”),
  5. Virgil Burla, Radio Romania Libera, “Cine e AUR și ce vrea George Simion. Numele controversate de pe listele Alianței pentru Unirea Românilor” (“Who are AUR and what does George Simion want. Controversial names on the AUR lists”),
  6. Note the similarities to the Fascist self-situation on a so-called economic “Third Position”, opposed to both capitalism and communism. In this respect it can be said that AUR is indeed Fascist, or at least third positionist. In my view though this is not an apt comparison because most strains of Fascism make primarily metaphysical, cultural, political claims rather than economic ones and thus the “third position” is insufficiently descriptive because it defines this third position as a negation of two others (which are in themselves rather difficult to define simply, and most people would probably disagree with a Fascist definition of both) rather than via reference to any positive content.