The identity-solidarity link: a key challenge for global governance

By Emmanuel Dalle Mulle
Post-doctoral researcher, International History Department, Graduate Institute


The recent economic crisis has been accompanied by the electoral rise of populist and radical right parties (PRRPs) throughout Europe and North America. While Donald Trump has become the 45th President of the United States after a campaign in which he presented himself as the representative of the people against the establishment, in Europe, parties such as the French National Front, the Italian Northern League and the Dutch Party for Freedom have gathered considerable electoral clout using similar arguments.

Apart from ‘the people vs. the elite’ discourse, such parties have been studied for their positions along the cultural dimension of politics, with regard to their nativism and anti-immigration positions, as well as their authoritarian ones. By contrast, their economic agenda has often been neglected, as it was often suggested by scholars that this aspect was secondary, if not irrelevant, for their electoral success. Yet, the economic discourse of such parties has recently attracted more academic attention than before. In the 1990s, PRRPs were mostly labelled as neoliberal, but some authors have argued that since the end of that decade and, in particular, from the beginning of the 2008 economic crisis, they have moved towards more centrist, if not leftist, positions, which, however, have been informed by their typically nativist ideology. The result of more ‘leftist’ approaches coupled with their nationalist leanings has often been defined as ‘welfare chauvinism’, that is, the defence of ‘a system of social protection for those who belong to the ethnically defined community’.

Welfare chauvinism calls for the exclusion of foreigners from social security in order to preserve it for the natives. It is a quite simple discursive frame that has, however, the advantage of combining typically conservative cultural positions relating to identity with more instrumental ones concerning welfare. Overall, it calls for a reinforcement of solidarity by means of excluding non-members.

We can also see such a link between identity and welfare at play at the sub-state level in the claims of separatist parties voicing what we can define as ‘the nationalism of the rich’, that is a ‘nationalist discourse that seeks to end the economic “exploitation” suffered by a group of people represented as a wealthy nation and supposedly carried out by the populations of poorer regions and/or inefficient state administrations’. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, such rhetoric has been used by separatist parties in Catalonia, Flanders, and Northern Italy with very good results, especially in the first two regions. In Catalonia, for instance, pro-independence parties have widely denounced the so-called espoli fiscal (fiscal plundering) carried out by the Spanish state to the detriment of the Catalan population. Although this is not the only reason for the recent rise of support for independence in the region, several studies show how the economic dimension has fundamentally contributed to the transformation of separatism from a marginal to a hegemonic force.

Despite differences in the specific arguments they use and the context in which they operate, both the case of PRRPs and that of separatist parties in rich European regions point to the underlying, and often underestimated link, between identity and solidarity. Many authors, especially Wim Van Oorschot, show that, among several criteria that citizens use in advanced economies to decide what are the legitimate categories of recipients of social support, identity is the most widely and stringently adopted. This means that, for instance in the European context, immigrants are consistently ranked as the least deserving category of welfare recipients.

At a closer look, this comes as little surprise, since, historically, welfare states have been deliberately built as nation-building tools, fostering social cohesion and legitimising state authority, by promoting a process of ‘internal bonding through external bounding’. As shown by Maurizio Ferrera, until the 1970s, welfare states were closed systems in which welfare membership coincided with citizenship. In this way solidarity was national solidarity and, in the words of Michael Bommes, welfare states grew into ‘thresholds of inequality’.

In Europe, welfare state closure around citizenship reached its apex in the 1970s, when virtually all of the national population had access to social services and benefits, while foreigners rarely enjoyed it. This, however, started to change during the same decade, mainly through the process of European integration, which progressively established rules of non-discrimination against European Economic Community (EEC) migrants within the EEC space, and later generally extended to long-term foreign residents from other countries.

At the same time, the 1970s also brought an end to the so-called ‘Glorious Thirties’, that is, those three decades of extraordinary economic growth and stability that, since the end of the Second World War, had sustained the peaceful development of European welfare. From the mid-1970s, however, European welfare states have entered what Paul Pierson has called ‘the age of permanent austerity’. Since then, redistributive conflicts have become much more salient than before, creating potentials for contestation that have been seized upon by different types of parties suggesting specific framing strategies to solve them: between rich and poor members of the same national community (favouring liberal parties, especially in the early years of the ‘age of permanent austerity’); between citizens and foreign migrants (to the advantage of PRRPs); and between richer and poorer national communities inhabiting the same state (exploited by separatist parties voicing the ‘nationalism of the rich’ mentioned above). More recently, a further example of redistributive conflict involving inter-group solidarity is offered by the management of the debt and euro crisis and, especially, by discussions concerning the introduction of debt-sharing and redistributive mechanisms among EU member states, which have generally pitted contributory countries against recipient ones.

In such contexts, the main challenge is not so much how to put in place solidarity systems that avoid any link to identity whatsoever. Solidarity inevitably builds on social closure and whatever criteria for access will be formulated, these will create barriers creating bonds among members also by means of external bounding. The challenge is rather how to create social systems that are as inclusive as possible and whose criteria for access are as respectful as possible of fairness and social justice considerations. This is a key challenge facing global governance institutions today.


Dr. Dalle Mulle is currently working on an FNS-funded research project entitled ‘The Myth of Homogeneity: Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919-1939’, which analyses policies of protection and assimilation of national minorities in Belgium, Italy and Spain during the interwar years. His new book, the “The Nationalism of the Rich: Discourses and Strategies of Separatist Parties in Catalonia, Flanders, Northern Italy and Scotland” is available now.


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