Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right
(Practical Action Publishing, 2019)
Reviewed by Erwin Rafael
(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)
The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise globally of political parties and leaders associated with extreme right-wing ideologies and political programs. This right-wing surge is in sharp contrast to the seemingly progressive start to the decade that saw the toppling of once-unassailable dictatorships in the Middle East and the emergence of Occupy Wall Street in the United States of America and similar horizontalist activist movements in Europe. The swing of governments to the right spanned countries in both the Global South and the Global North, sparking much theorizing about structural explanations of the phenomenon. Walden Bello’s Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right contributes to this theoretical discussion by proposing counterrevolution as a lens to make sense of the ascent of right-wing politics at this juncture in human history.
Bello’s concept of counterrevolution builds on Arno Mayer’s work on the subject, arguing dialectically that ‘there can be no revolution without counterrevolution’ (p.5). While Mayer (2000) defined counterrevolution through an in-depth discussion of its opposition to revolution’s promise of new foundations of polity and society, Bello opted for a more straightforward definition couched in terms of a specific political ideology. ‘Successful counterrevolution,’ Bello argues, ‘is where forces from the extreme right had seized power or achieved hegemony” (p.3). By tying the definition of counterrevolution to a specific ideological outcome, Bello expands the notion of counterrevolution to include a variety of movements that involve the ascent into power of the likes of the extreme right, the authoritarian right, religious nationalists, and fascists. This theoretical move allowed Bello to propose two types of counterrevolutions. The first type is what he calls classical class-based counterrevolution which is a reaction to an insurgent underclass that aims to fundamentally change a social system against the elites and their allied forces. The second type is a rejection of the political and ideological paradigm of liberal democracy ‘that is seen as either having disrupted a natural social order or failed to fulfill the aspirations of those who initially had faith in it” (p.9).
Taking inspiration from Barrington Moore’s comparative and historical method of sociological analysis, Bello takes readers through a survey of what he argues to be experiences of counterrevolutions spanning nine decades in seven countries. Bello sets up the discussion on the dynamics of counterrevolution with an analysis of the rise of fascism in post-World War I Italy, which introduces three key points emphasized in the rest of the book: 1) the middle class serves as the muscle for counterrevolution, 2) rural class conflict is important in the counterrevolutionary dynamic, and 3) counterrevolution could emerge not as a reaction to an insurgent underclass but rather to moderate social reforms won through the mechanisms of a bourgeois government. Bello discusses three cases of so-called classical class-based counterrevolutions – the eliminationist national counterrevolution in Indonesia in 1965-66, the overthrow of the Allende-led Left government in Chile in 1970, and the two military-led counterrevolutions in post-World War II Thailand. The chapter on Thailand serves as transition to the discussion of counterrevolutions of the second type aimed against failed liberal democracies, the cases of which include the Hindu counterrevolution in India, the rise of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and the emergence of the far-right as a significant political force in the Global North. Bello closes the book with a short prescript on present-day Brazil under Jairus Bolsonaro.
Bello’s claim that the middle class is the mass base of the counterrevolution is in keeping with his Gramscian pedigree. However, some characterizations of the middle class in the book is impressionistic rather than grounded on data gathered through sound methodology. For example, in explaining the popular support for Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Bello argues that a significant factor is a general sense of lawlessness that took hold of the public consciousness ‘especially among the aspirational middle class, who benefited from concentrated growth in the retail, real estate, and business process outsourcing sectors, but now worried about their basic safety” (p. 109). Bello’s argument is not based on first-hand data gathering but rather directly references the work of Heydarian (2018). However, a cursory examination of the source reveals that the claim was based solely on a post-presidential election exit poll that only shows that a higher proportion of Class ABC voters chose Duterte compared to Class DE and does not have any data on occupations and the reasons for voting of the respondents. Other examples of impressionistic statements about the middle class abound in the book and the reader is better off treating Bello’s claims on middle class behavior and beliefs as hypotheses that may have theoretical basis but need more meticulous empirical confirmation.
Bello conspicuously did not define what a revolution is, which is a significant theoretical deficit in a book that purports to discuss the dialectic of revolution and counterrevolution. To play on Arno Mayer’s words, there can be no counterrevolution without a revolution, and the important question that needs to be asked when reading each chapter of this book is what exactly is the revolution being countered in this example? Class conflict and the efforts of representatives of the underclass to transform existing political systems into something fundamentally different make revolution unambiguous in the classical counterrevolutions in Italy, Indonesia, Chile, and Thailand in the 1970s. However, one is hard-pressed to identify the revolution being countered in the cases of Thailand in the 2000s, India, the Philippines, and the Global North. Bello argues that these so-called counterrevolutions were largely borne from the failings of liberal democracies due to the adoption of neoliberal policies and corporate globalization. Is Bello then suggesting that the neoliberal turn that started in the 1970s is to be construed as the revolution being countered in these examples? Most likely this is not what Bello meant based on his past body of work, but such is the theoretical ambiguity caused by using the revolution-counterrevolution dynamic as explanation without clearly defining the concept of revolution.
Bello’s second type of counterrevolution is amorphous and creates a string of paradoxical arguments because of his decision to define counterrevolution based on the ascent of right-wing ideology. For example, in the case of the Global North, Bello argues that the political right ate the political left’s lunch because it rose as a counterrevolutionary reaction to neoliberalism and globalization. But aren’t neoliberalism and globalization by themselves already marks of the triumph of right-wing ideas? Within Bello’s own parameters of identifying counterrevolution with the ascent of right-wing politics, rather than proposing a second type of counterrevolution that is a mere reaction to failed neoliberal policies, it seems more theoretically sound to conceptualize the global right-wing surge of the 2010s as a later stage of a continuing counterrevolution that began with the ascent of neoliberalism and which aims to counter and contain the relatively progressive political and economic policies that emerged in the immediate post-World War II era.
Counterrevolution is theoretically ambitious given its breadth and universalizing intentions. Each individual chapter provides an informative, although not quite comprehensive, account of each featured country’s experience of a right-wing turn in the current decade. Unfortunately, ambition proved to be the book’s own undoing. The expansion of the concept of counterrevolution, which is Bello’s aimed primary contribution to the larger theoretical discussion on the global swing to the right, provides a novel perspective, but ultimately ends up diluting the explanatory potential of the revolution-counterrevolution dynamic because of the lack of conceptual specificity and theoretical coherence.
Heydarian, RJ. (2018) The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy. London: Palgrave Pivot.
Mayer, AJ. (2000) The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.