All posts Theory

Counter Hegemony and the Rise of a New Historical Political Block

Note from LeftEast editors. We republish this article which originally appeared on the Transform Europe Network Site.

A critique of radical -and by now mainstream- anti-immigrant populism in Europe based solemnly on ideals of liberal-humanitarianism, without a systemic critique of capital is misleading in many respects. Such Analysts and commentators fail to understand properly or they just ignore, why institutionalized solidarity has not got embedded into societies, why large scale often lower class masses loudly reject help now, why Eastern Europe started the nationalist ‘revolt’, and why migration has gone up in the era of globalization, what are the root causes and what political consequences we face.  Without re-embedding migration into its social context, critiques repeat only Kantian ideals of humanitarianism, promote peaceful co-existence and reject Eurocentrisms and racisms as verbal and institutionalized acts. While with an unsystematic critique, we fail to see that by now migration symbolizes and represents some of the key contradictions of this newest cycle of globalization (and thus the historical force to push into a new global regime of capitalism). In short, we can easily miss the need to see events of right wing radicalization as an outcome of a global opening up within the hierarchically developing and destabilizing global capitalism. Here I try to give some key analytical perspectives, how we can understand these developments from a Gramscian Marxist historical-structural perspective, and why this change has been almost inevitable seeing the interplay between materials and ideational processes.

When asked about key political concerns European survey respondents mainly refer to the defense of the “European” arena with regard to migration and not the concrete national spaces they live in. In spring 2018 the majority of the respondents considered migration and terrorism as the key problem for the European Union but generally they did not have the same level of concern for their own country. On a national level (cumulated national opinion figure levels when asked about the most important national problem) unemployment is seen as the gravest issue throughout European. Immigration has dominated the European level concerns since the end of 2014 (and moved together with terrorism), while it came second or third when national level priorities have been listed. [1] Thus immigration is more of a problem for ‘Europe’ and within the EU than for its member states. This discrepancy shows that the European Union and overall Europe is problematized.

The second thing we need to consider is that the majority of people has seen migration from “different” regions as a general negative phenomenon for a longer period of time and actually there was an increase in negative attitudes with the advancement of globalization since the 1980s. As in the 2010s, already in 2006 the majority rejected firmly that immigrants contribute a lot to the relevant country or according to the European Social Survey[2] they argued for allowing zero or only a few immigrants coming from poorer countries outside “Europe”. This overall negative attitude was on the rise in the 2000s, as according to the same ESS survey in 2002[3] the average level of rejection was still below 50%[4]. Looking at various historical data there is rather strong evidence that during globalization’s most recent opening up cycle in terms of foreign investment and transnational economic processes, the concern over migration did increase. In the beginning of the era of globalization, in the early 1980s migration was not a key issue in Europe. This can be nicely shown  through the first Eurobarometer survey on immigration which was launched only in 1988 (Eurobarometer surveys started in 1976) and became a hot issue, first in the early 1990s due to a wave of  “Sub Mediterranean” and “East European” migrants and again in the 2010s due to the “refugee crisis”. If we look at the survey data we can see that in the early 1990s still less than one quarter of the respondents at the European Community at that time (12 states) feared “single market” because of immigration. The same concern became a dominant majority viewpoint throughout the European Union by the 2010s as mentioned  above. [5] Thus during the advancement of globalization “Europe” as a “civilized” region is seen more and more being in danger in relation to migration and most importantly toward the changing categories of “un-” and “half civilized non-Europeans”, including very importantly East European migrants.[6]

On a European and even on an EU level there are very important demographic and migratory processes related to globalization, which might help to explain the above changes in public opinion and can provide a historical structural background for understanding the recent “panic”.  First we need to consider how the continent and the EU has been performing in terms of population, migratory and economic weight and to see what contradictions it shows and how it can be interpreted on the basis of historical existing political discourses and how they can match each other and what dynamics emerge.

In terms of global economic and population weight the European continent and within the European Union has been on a decline and since the 1960s which decline quickened up after 1990.[7] Concerning population weight between 1990 and 2015 on a European level, it went down from 14% to 10%, on an EU level (with countries being members today) this decrease of population weight was 9 to 7%.[8] In the previously state socialist countries in Europe the same decline was from 7 to 4%. On an economic level according to World Bank data (current USD)[9] the whole continent together with Central Asia declined from 40% to 31% if their relative economic weight is measured. The EU (with the current membership countries) went down from 33% to 24% globally between 1990 and 2014.  In previously state socialist countries of the European continent there was a sharp decline during the transition ( in many countries in absolute terms there was a 50% decline around 1990) and afterwards they followed different developmental paths. After the initial shock, the Central European and Baltic region followed more or less global growth  and thus maintained its economic weight at the level reached by the early 1990s (around 1,8%).  Thus for the whole continent we are seeing an ongoing loss of demographic and economic importance as related to the global development, while the ratio of migrants (those living in European countries but born in another European or non-European country) has increased from 7 to 10% between 1990 and 2015, which was well above the rise of this migrant versus non migrant rate globally (going up by 54% as opposed to the 15% increase globally). In the European Union (member countries as in 2018) this ratio of migrant versus non-migrant  went up from 6 to 11%, showing thus an even higher rate of increase of 55%. At the same time since 1990 the migration weight of Europe (total ratio of migrants by country of birth living in Europe regardless of the reason and the form of migration) has been always very high above and close to 30% (i.e one third of the total global migrant stock lived in Europe), while in the case of the EU actually the same ratio went up from 18 to 22% between 1990 and 2015. This clearly shows that Europeans and within this people living in the EU have been observing a loss of demographic and economic weight, while they have been experiencing the relative increase of migration throughout the period of globalization. As related to a relatively low population weight the declining but relatively high economic weight combined with an increasing and relatively high migration weight of Europe (and within, of the EU, partly due to the large number of smaller countries) shows a historical scenario in which a relatively rich and declining region is getting more and more open in its economy and with regard to migration.[10] These changes show that the weight of European and within EU economy is not any more above the migration weight and thus the relative rate of economic opportunities (economic weight) is getting below the ratio of migrants targeting within and from outside Europe and the European Union. This change we can understand as a crossing-point. Probably the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016 was just a visible (and heavily mediatized) event when asylum seekers massively fleeing due to wars, military interventions (led by the US and European NATO countries) and the evolving dramatic instabilities of Western Asia and Northern Africa found themselves in the midst of  massive changes in Europe. These unfortunate and very diverse groups, with highly complex set of motivations served as burning matches in a field covered massively with oil.  As opposed to the very high number refugees in 1992 including  people from Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe the newcomers found a completely different Europe in 2015 and 2016.[11]

Taking a longer term perspective the processes of relative demographic and economic decline could be easily interpreted by experts utilizing the ideas of demographic transitions as a need to open up borders further in order regain economic and population weight. Such opening up discourses have been with us since the 1950s when already there was the idea to fill the needs of the labor market. With the advancement of globalization this intensified and not only the need to facilitate labor mobility appeared, but also the requirement to get population to pay for the extensive social benefits.  More and more international organizations and the EU itself started “promoting” or managing mobility in order to satisfy the needs of capital in an era of demographic decline. Global capital and the political institutions representing them (like OECD) have been eager to select the “right” combination after uprooting masses of people since the 1980s from Central and Eastern or in large areas of Africa. The increasing flows and stocks of foreign direct investment not only required dramatic changes in economic policies leading to the closure of “loss making” companies, mines and cooperatives thus uprooting the local population.[12] On an ideological level these needs made an uneasy alliance with those promoting humanitarian ideals without a substantial critique of global capital even promoting the advancement of globalization and neoliberal economic policies. This was one of the key points in the neo-liberal historical and political block being in a hegemonic position since the 1980s till very recently.

The same demographic and economic processes could also enhance radical right wing discourses, which claim that such developments lead to the decline of “European”, “white” culture that led to the rise of “Europe”. This discourse directly using pre Second World War ideas of biological and cultural revitalization[13] became a key contender for challenging the above hegemony and start building up a new authoritarian hegemony based on uneasy alliances of anti-immigrant nationalisms challenging the humanitarian ideals without substantially questioning the neoliberal economic policies.

It is of no need to explain that both historical blocks are very problematic, among which the rising authoritarian block  actually despises ideas of humanitarian progress, which was maintained previously without providing the material and institutional conditions for them. What makes the liberal and the authoritarian block somewhat related is that  basically both historical and political blocks of institutions, policies and material conditions transform migrant and non-migrant laboring people  into abstract objects or puts the problems related to competition for rents and resources into the bodies of people themselves. Both fit very well the material processes of global capitalism promoting calculations on what composition of people are needed in the global production and what biopolitical balances are to be kept. The key things for us is not immediate criticism of the liberal and authoritarian “blocks” (of course they are inhumane just like in other periods of capitalism), but to see what dynamics these clashes among blocks can lead to in an ongoing interaction with material processes.

In the historical change the liberal historical and political block promoting the further increase of migration to counterbalance the above-analyzed decline of significance became more volatile for criticism coming from the European right. The volatility was not only due to the increasing numbers and rates of migrants and the loss of global control, but globalization also meant the uprooting of local working classes and the loss of stable (often) privileged jobs among them (in economics we understand these privileges as “rents”). Thus workers (including those of migrant background) found themselves in a need to fight for the defense of such rents and privileges against “incomers” and to ask the governments (being more protective before globalization) to do so. This claim and demand has been a clear way for asking for more nationalism as opposed to “globalism”, e.g. in the case of Brexit there was social anger against East European migrants or see ideas currently promoted by the government in Austria to reduce social benefits for the children of migrants residing in poorer countries of the EU, disregarding how much extra costs these families take as compared to local workers. Thus, it is not difficult to see how, prewar discursive patterns of “race suicide” van be revitalized by the far right and why the conservatives are prepared to join the new authoritarian historical and political block in order to gain hegemony in the political and discursive arena against the so called “liberal fossils”. With the historical and ideological heritage Europe had, and the evolving material changes this rising block needed just very little creativity on how to start this massive campaign against migrants and how they could make uneasy and shaky alliances of the neo-liberal block. It was easy  for the far right to link the recent so-called “refugee crisis” to the contradictions of globalization that became obvious in the movement of migrant labor  But why Eastern Europe started the attack and why it has become a stronghold of the rising counter-hegemony of the authoritarian and nationalist block?

On the basis of the above analysis one can recognize the reasons which predestined Eastern Europe to push for an authoritarian change. Eastern Europe has never been involved in massive immigration exchanges with countries beyond the immediate neighboring countries, apart of a few groups coming from Latin America and South East Asia during state socialism. Thus, it never had mental maps of migratory links beyond the immediate region and the idealized West (which East European societies now want to “punish” symbolically for the contradictions of globalization). At the same time, the East European societies were massively uprooted by the collapse of state socialism, which only had well planned and organized exchanges of migrant labor previously and an amazing level of job security. This up rootedness and the constantly unequal development (in modernization language: backwardness) as related to other parts of Europe made these countries labor reservoirs of  all the non-Eastern economies of Europe in terms of domestic, service and skilled labor, which has been a major, ongoing unequal exchange within Europe, without any compensation for the losses. These shocks of emigration and the dramatic economic changes together with the massive heritage of small nation nationalisms (we are disappearing if we do not promote our own cultural and demographic resources) pushed people into the hands of right wing elites trying to make a revenge against local and global elites ruling the region in the 1990s and early 2000s This process was heightened by the lack of any real leftist critique in Eastern Europe and they could easily target “Soros” people organizing “illegal migration” with a massive support from the lower classes. In addition, there was also the change in the media market (the rising groups had longer-term strategies to buy up or control media surfaces often using state resources) and the advancement of negative fake news campaigns. The right wing groups in Eastern Europe receiving massive help from the American far right have used these poisonous weapons skillfully. In addition Russia was also interested in such “popular” revolts against the EU, the elites of which have been following the American ideals of the neo-liberal globalization. Altogether the hegemony of the liberal political and historical block is clearly gone and migration has been the engine of history (via Gramscian “passive revolutions”) to start a new phase of global capitalism without any immediate and massive hope of moving beyond this hierarchical and inhumane system producing new and new repressive historical political blocks.

Attila Melegh is a sociologist, economist and historian. He has taught in the United States, Russia, Georgia and Hungary. He is also an associate professor at Corvinus University, Budapest, senior researcher at the Demographic Research Institute. Beside the comparative-historical analysis of international migration and population discourses, he also does research on the role of global hierarchies in Eastern European transformations utilizing postcolonial criticism. He has published extensively and among other publications he is the author of the book: On the East/West Slope. Globalization, Nationalism, Racism and Discourses on Central and Eastern Europe, New York-Budapest: CEU Press, 2006. He is the president of the European Network in Universal and Global History and he is a founder/director of Karl Polanyi Research Center for Global Social Studies at Corvinus University.

[1] (Standard Eurobarometer 89 – Spring 2018, European Union, 2018)

[2] ESS Round 3: European Social Survey Round 3 Data (2006). Data file edition 3.6. NSD – Norwegian Centre for Research Data, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data for ESS ERIC.

[3] ESS Round 1: European Social Survey Round 1 Data (2002). Data file edition 6.5. NSD – Norwegian Centre for Research Data, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data for ESS ERIC.

[4] The survey question was the same although the poll had a slightly different geographic composition.

[5] See for instance Eurobarometer Spring 1995 publishing the fieldwork of late 1994.

[6] This othering has a massive history and has been massively investigated among others by Larry Wolff, Edward Said and Maria Todorova. But on the basis of this we do not know why this othering is on the rise recently and why it gets into the forefront of European politics in the 2010s as it has been with us for more than 200 years.

[7] Here I revise and reapply the idea of Böröcz to incorporate the role of demographic and economic „weight” see: Böröcz, József. 2009. The European Union and Global Social Change: A Critical Geopolitical Economic Analysis. London: Routledge . Migration weight and its link to economic has been experimented Melegh, Attila. 2017. “Európa a globális migrációban 1990–2015 között az ENSZ és a Világbank statisztikái tükrében.” Demografia 17 (1) Available online:

[8] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, DVD Edition

[9] World Development Indicators, The World Bank, 12 November, 2015, World Development Indicators (WDI) is the primary World Bank database for development data from officially recognized international sources.

[10] For innstance import as a share of GDP in Europe and Central Asia in 1960 was 19%, in 1990 26% and by 2014 38% which levels are well above global average levels.

[11] Cantat, Celine (2016) Rethinking Mobilities: Solidarity and Migrant Struggles Beyond Narratives of Crisis. Intersections. EEJSP 2(4): 11-32. DOI: 10.17356/ieejsp.v2i4.286,

[12] For the role of foreign direct investment see among other seminal studies: Sassen, Saskia. 2006 [1988]. “Foreign Investment: A Neglected Variable.” In The Migration Reader. Exploring Politics and Policies, edited by Anthony M. Messina and Gallya Lahav, 596–608. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[13] Bashford, Alison. 2014. Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth. Columbia Studies in International and Global History. New York: Columbia University Press.