Photographer: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images
Photographer: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, blood-and-soil nationalism is resurgent. Vladimir Putin has rediscovered the joys of Orthodox Christianity and Russian expansionism. Investing in a "China Dream," Xi Jinping plans to project Chinese power far beyond the mainland. He must contend with the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, who has vowed that the 21st century will be India’s, and Shinzo Abe, who wants to relax Japan’s commitments to pacifism.

Warning of the dangers posed by these "four horsemen," the Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens wonders if they have read "the bloodied pages of European history." But war between pushy nation-states is not nearly as likely as the quick empowerment of bigoted individuals and movements in those countries; and this alarming phenomenon is hardly confined to the East.

The triumph of far-right parties in the European Parliament elections last weekend underscores how the angry chorus "Take Back Our Country" now resonates around the world. Fans of Marine Le Pen, who has compared Muslims in France to Nazi occupiers, amplify their sense of victimhood as raucously as those neo-Hindus that Salman Rushdie has felicitously named "Modi Toadies."

Vicious anti-Semites in Hungary, Muslim-baiters in the U.K. and India, and ethnic-cleansers in Sri Lanka and Myanmar are galvanized by the same imperative: to define a collectivity by demonizing minorities, immigrants, and their ostensibly cosmopolitan and rootless liberal supporters.

What explains the recrudescence of a politics of hatred and prejudice, whose last worldwide outbreak occurred in the early 20th century? Thinkers on the left, fixated on class struggle, have never been as insightful about the appeal of ethnic and religious identity as the seers of the right, such as the Catholic nationalist Carl Schmitt.

Schmitt wrote his major work "The Concept of the Political" (1932) against a backdrop -- familiar to us today -- of economic crisis, failing constitutional democracy and loss of state sovereignty. He scorned the modern quest for freedom and equality, and the messy compromises of parliaments and political liberalism. In his view, the distinction between friend and enemy defined the political realm. Indeed, “the high points of politics” are reached when enemies can be recognized with “concrete clarity” as “different and alien.”

Schmitt ended up a doctrinaire anti-Semite. In later books he elaborated on his vision of incommensurable cultures, which acquired their distinct identities through the friend-enemy polarity.

Schmitt’s views have enjoyed a long afterlife, especially among neoconservatives in the U.S. and New Rightists in Europe. They now find an echo in a range of mainstream politicians who denounce liberal and multiculturalist "appeasers" of minorities and immigrants, and try to match the far-right’s exclusionary nationalism by invoking "core" ethnic, religious and cultural identities.

This retreat into the most atavistic forms of nationalism isn’t what most of us anticipated in 1989, when liberal democracy and capitalism appeared to have no worthy adversaries in sight. The dream of cosmopolitan humanity long championed by the Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, seemed closer to fulfillment than at any other time since the 19th century.

But some bracingly intransigent thinkers on the right were even then warning against assuming that, as Allan Bloom wrote in a response to Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history, "the world has been made safe for reason as understood by the market."

The conservative Bloom was uneasy about the advent of "a global common market the only goal of which is to minister to men's bodily needs and whims." Bloom seems to have recognized that a rationalized global economic order would have to reckon, during times of dysfunction and failure, with the political seductiveness of the friend-enemy dichotomy.

"All bets are off," Bloom warned. The victory of the West could "be decisively unsatisfactory." While failed modernization made non-Western countries vulnerable to "varieties of obscurantism," "the European nations, which can find no rational ground for the exclusion of countless potential immigrants from their homelands, look back to their national myths." As for an alternative, Bloom was blunt: "There is nowhere else to seek it. I would suggest that fascism has a future, if not the future."

This center-right anxiety -- about being outflanked by the vigorous far right rather than the enfeebled left -- may prove more prescient than the triumphalist predictions in the early 1990s of a new world order. There is of course no danger of a simple repeat of the European ordeal of the 1930s. Global socioeconomic interdependence makes irredentism an expensive venture, as Putin is finding out. Assaults on minorities are more likely today to have international repercussions, as Modi discovered when he was barred from travel to the U.S. But the election results in Europe are another reminder that it won’t be easy to douse sectarian furies in our increasingly tribalized world.

To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net.