The Anti-System

by | 2 Mar 2021

The global rise of the far right has given new relevance to the concept of anti-system in the context of politics. In order to understand what is happening, we need to go back a few decades. This is not the place to dwell on how rich this period was, politically speaking. Generalizations will run the risk of being too hasty and there will be plenty of omissions. Nonetheless, the exercise is urgently needed if we are to make sense of what, at times, seems to be totally devoid of meaning.

The system/anti-system binary exists across many different disciplines, from the natural and the human and social sciences to biology, physics, epistemology and psychology. The body, the world, the city, the climate, can all be conceived of as systems. There is even a discipline devoted to the study of systems – systems theory. Systems are usually defined as entities made up of different parts that interact in such a way as to form a unified or coherent whole. A system is, therefore, a limited thing, and what is outside of it can either surround and influence it (its environment) or be hostile and bent on destroying it (anti-system). Although some currents within the social sciences reject the notion of a system, there are many formulations of the system/anti-system binary in this field. Two formulations in particular have become influential. Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system theory argues that, historically, there have been two types of world-system: the world-empire and the world-economy, the former being characterized by a political center with vast bureaucratic structures and multiple hierarchical cultures, the latter by a single division of labor, multiple political centers and multiple hierarchical cultures. From the sixteenth century onwards, there has been the modern world-system, based on capitalism’s world-economy and moving at different paces. This dynamic, conflict-driven system has divided the different countries/regions of the world into three categories – core, periphery and semi-periphery –, defined according to the way in which they appropriate (or have been expropriated by) the surplus of global capitalist and colonialist production. The system allows for transfers of value from peripheral to core countries, while the semi-peripheral countries serve as conveyors of the value thus created, transferring it from the periphery to the center (as was, for centuries, the case with Portugal).

The other conception of system (and anti-system) has been developed mostly in the area of political science and international relations. In this case, a system is conceived of as a coherent set of principles, norms, institutions, concepts, beliefs and values that define the bounds of what is conventional and legitimize the actions of agents within those bounds. The unity of the system can be local, regional, national or international. We can say that, after the Second World War, there have been two dominant national systems: the one-party political system at the service of socialism (the Sino-Soviet world), and a liberal democratic system at the service of capitalism (the liberal world). Eventually, international relations between the two systems shaped a third system – the Cold War, a regulated system of conflict and containment. The Cold War conditioned the assessment of the two national/regional systems: the liberal world saw the Sino-Soviet world as a dictatorship at the service of a bureaucratic caste, whereas the Sino-Soviet world saw the liberal world as a bourgeois democracy at the service of capitalist accumulation and exploitation. With the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), this system, which was actually made up of three systems, went into crisis. At the national level, only one system – the liberal system – came to be recognized as legitimate. During Donald Trump’s administration, the crisis of the Cold War international system reached new heights. Viewed from the long-term perspective of the modern world-system, and for all the drama that accompanied them, these political transformations are epochal variations within the same system and, indeed, may be the sign of a crisis running much deeper in the world-system itself.

Movements that radically oppose the dominant system are termed anti-system. In the twentieth century, the movements that went against capitalism and colonialism (anti-world-system) and those that went against liberal democracy (anti-liberal world) were anti-system. Some movements, such as the socialist parties and most unions during the early decades of the twentieth century (that is to say, democratic socialism), were against capitalism/colonialism but not against liberal democracy. Others, and this was the case with the revolutionary movements (communists, anarchists) and many anti-colonial liberation movements, whether by means of armed struggle or not, were against both capitalism/colonialism and liberal democracy. Finally, there were those who were against liberal democracy but not against capitalism/colonialism. That was the case with the reactionary, Nazi, fascist, populist right-wing movements, which either did not even accept the three tenets of the French Revolution (freedom, equality, fraternity) or believed that the evolution of liberal democracy (extending the suffrage, more and more social and economic rights) and the growth of the communist movement after the Russian Revolution represented a dangerous drift that would inevitably pose a threat to capitalism. These movements proposed that capitalism be put under the aegis of the authoritarian State (fascism and Nazism).

It has always been important to distinguish between left and right and between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements. Whenever the former fought against capitalism/colonialism, they did so in the name of a more just, diverse and equal social system, and whenever they fought against liberal democracy, it was in the name of a more radical democracy, even if the outcome turned out to be dictatorship, as was the case with Stalin. On the contrary, the counterrevolutionary movements have always fought against the anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist forces. They often did so because of the prejudice that these forces were led by inferior or dangerous classes – which was also the reason they chose dictatorship whenever they felt that liberal democracy presented a threat to capitalism.


Between 1945 and 1989, the system/anti-system dialectic became especially intense. After being defeated in the core countries of the world-system – what we now call the Global North –, fascism and Nazism survived only in Portugal and Spain, two semi-peripheral European countries. In Russia and its satellite countries (the other European semi-periphery) and in China, the Sino-Soviet system was consolidated. In Europe’s core countries, liberal democracy became the only legitimate political regime. The socialist parties abandoned the anti-capitalist struggle (in 1959, Germany’s SPD dropped its commitment to Marxism) and devoted themselves to managing the tension between liberal democracy (based on the notion of popular sovereignty) and capitalism (based on the notion of the infinite accumulation of wealth), according to the new formula of an old concept: social democracy. As to the Communist parties and other parties to the left of the socialist parties, they eventually integrated themselves into the democratic system. In fact, the members of those parties (notably so in the case of the Communists) were the staunchest defenders of democracy during the fascist and Nazi night, and in the end paid a heavy price for it. By way of illustration, let me just mention Álvaro Cunhal, the secretary general of the Portuguese Communist Party, who spent 15 years in prison, eight of them in solitary confinement.

On the periphery and semi-periphery of the world-system, the anti-capitalist and anti-liberal democracy movements rose to power in China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam. Elsewhere they waged their anti-system struggle for many years, sometimes with recourse to armed struggle, as was the case in Colombia, the Philippines, Turkey, Sri Lanka, India, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The most significant instance of an anti-capitalist but non-anti-liberal democracy movement was the one led by Salvador Allende in Chile (1970-1973), which was neutralized by a brutal, CIA-planned coup.

In Africa and Asia, the anti-colonial liberation movements added complexity to the anti-system movements. Under the inspiration of the 1955 Bandung Conference, which brought together 29 Asian and African countries and gave a political impetus to the concept of the Third World (the Non-Aligned Movement), they proposed a double rupture with systemic logic. On the one hand, they rejected both liberal capitalism and Soviet socialism and were ready to fight for alternatives that combined European political thought and various strains of African thought. On the other hand, they sought to build a democratic political regime of a new type, in which liberation movements were to play a leading role. Much of this political experiment collapsed in the 1980s, as a result of internal mistakes and of the siege mounted by global capitalism.

1989 to the present

Here are the most significant features of anti-system politics in recent times. With the collapse of the USSR, it looked as if the world of liberal democracy had won the historical competition between systems and that the victory was irreversible (“the end of history”). But who was the winner? As we have seen, the two pillars of the anti-system struggle over the last 150 years have been capitalism/colonialism and liberal democracy. Were capitalism and democracy joint winners, back in 1989? Was it democracy at the expense of capitalism? Or was it capitalism at the expense of democracy? In order to answer these questions, we need to look at what had happened with the two pillars during the previous period and at the converging changes undergone by them.

Bear in mind that, prior to 1945, fascism and Nazism had largely been a response to the growing militancy of the working classes (“the Communist threat”), further exacerbated by high levels of unemployment and inflation and the impoverishment of the large majorities. Furthermore, the constraints of liberal democracy (limits on suffrage, total control over the elites, absence of universal public policies) made it impossible to manage social conflicts or give socialist movements the opportunity to consolidate alternatives. There was a fierce confrontation between two types of alternative: reformism and revolution. As a response to the consolidation of the Sino-Soviet world in the post-1945 period, the liberal world formed by the core countries sought to ease the tension between democracy and capitalism. To achieve it, the capitalist classes that dominated this world were forced to make concessions that would have been unimaginable in the preceding period: very high taxes, nationalization of strategic sectors, labor-capital co-management in the big companies (as in the then West Germany), strong labor rights, and universal social policies (health, education, pension system, transport). These developments led to the emergence of broad middle classes, which served as the basis upon which reformism was to consolidate itself. In Western Europe, compatibility between liberal democracy and capitalism was ensured via a combination of high levels of social protection and high levels of productivity. In the U.S., reformism was a lot more tenuous. In fact, it even involved a response to a supposed Communist threat (McCarthyism), which also cropped up in West Germany in the form of the Berufsverbot law (exclusion of communists and “radical extremists” from certain jobs). However, thanks to the newly acquired hegemonic status of the U.S., to trade union activism and the boom of the “thirty glorious years” (1945-1975), strong middle classes were guaranteed to emerge.

Together with the collapse of the USSR, this compromise between democracy and capitalism was the reason for the decline, in the core countries, of the anti-system movements, both on the left and the right. In the wake of the first oil crisis and the conservatives’ critique of democracy’s “excessive rights” (labor, economic and social rights), this commitment went into crisis by the mid-1970s, and the crisis worsened dramatically after 1989. In retrospect, it can be said that the defeated, in 1989, were both Soviet communism and social democracy. Capitalism was the winner, at the expense of democracy. Its victory resulted in the emergence of neoliberalism, i.e., a new version of capitalism, based on the deregulation of the economy, on the demonization of the State and of labor, economic and social rights, on full privatization of economic activity, and on the turning of markets into the prime regulator of economic and social life. After violent experiments in Chile and other countries in the Global South, neoliberalism presided over democratic transitions in southern Europe in the 1970s and in Latin America in the 1980s.

Until then, democratic or social rule of law had been the expression of the highest possible degree of compatibility between democracy and capitalism. From 1989 onwards, democracy became subordinate to capitalism, which meant that from now on it would be defended only insofar as it defended the interests of capitalism. This is so-called “market friendly democracy” and it was set against social democracy, which von Hayek had described as “totalitarian democracy”. Since the main goal is the defense of capitalism, whenever the national/international bourgeoisie considers it to be in danger, democracy must be sacrificed, and that sacrifice can, depending on circumstances, be either total (military or civilian dictatorships) or partial (post-war Italy, present-day legal-parliamentary coups). U.S. diplomacy and counterinsurgency have been the major global promoters of this ideology.

The anti-system movements

What about the anti-system movements in this last period? Again, one must make a distinction between left-wing and right-wing movements. As far as the left-wing movements are concerned, the old revolutionary movements turned into democratic and reformist parties. The anti-capitalist struggle turned into the struggle for broad economic, social and cultural rights, and the anti-liberal democracy struggle turned into the struggle for the radicalization of democracy: fighting against the degradation of liberal democracy, promoting the articulation between representative and participatory democracy, standing up for cultural diversity, fighting against racism, sexism, and colonialism old and new. In short, these parties ceased being anti-system and now fight for progressive transformations of the liberal democratic system.

Left-wing anti-system movements continued to exist, albeit – by definition – outside the party system. One can even say that they have grown, as a result of the increasing social distress caused, on the one hand, by the unconditional subordination of democracy to capitalism and its attendant consequences – repulsive social inequality, racial and sexual discrimination, imminent ecological catastrophe, endemic corruption, irregular wars –, and on the other by the inability of the parties on the left to put an end to this state of affairs. The old revolutionary and trade union movements were followed by new social movements at the local, national and even global level (Via Campesina, World Women’s March, and a number of global articulations arising both within and outside of the World Social Forum, which first convened in Brazil in 2001). In the meantime, new social actors have come on the scene, notably feminist, indigenous, ecological, LGBTIQ, popular economy, and Afro-descendant movements. Many of these pursue anti-capitalist goals, as well as forms of radical democracy. Some have successfully achieved these objectives at the local level, thereby becoming realistic utopias. They have as yet not been able to exert political leverage in a consistent manner, either at a national or global level, because of difficulties in translocal articulations and the fact that parties hold a monopoly on the liberal democratic political system. They are peaceful movements, guided by the idea of intercultural democracy and by a recognition of the value of the popular economies and ancestral knowledges not only of peasant and native communities but also, in the American context, of Afro-descendants.

The right-wing (read far right) anti-system movements also gained new impetus in this last period. As we have seen, Nazism and fascism suffered a crushing defeat (in the case of Portugal and Spain, as late as 1974-1976). Where they survived, they did so only in very attenuated form – as was the case with Argentina’s Peronismo and Brazil’s Varguismo –, unaccompanied by dictatorship, glorification of political violence, or racial hatred. This was the hybrid system originally known as populism. From 1989 onwards, we have witnessed the emergence or increasing visibility of far-right groups, almost invariably in connection with hatred- and racial violence-related rhetoric and acts. According to a report by Antifa International, there were 810 attacks provoked by “fanatics, fascists and extreme right-wing violence” in 2020, resulting in 325 deaths. Many of these movements remained illegal or explored the gray or hybrid areas I have called alegality. Over the last twenty years, these groups have become more aggressive and sought to become legal and even to convert to the system by turning themselves into parties, which they managed to legalize thanks to misleading rhetorical artifice and the complicity of the courts. Once that occurred, they kept their clandestine structures formally separate but organically linked to the party structure so as to ensure political mobilization, which is something parties lack the capacity to do by themselves. With Donald Trump’s rise to power, far-right movements were given a new lease on life and began diversifying. US far-right groups and militias had been on the rise, especially after Barak Obama became president. In 2018, the well-respected Southern Poverty Law Center identified no less than 1,020 “hate groups”. Some of these are pro-Nazis, heavily armed and claim the legacy of movements associated with racial lynching (the Ku Klux Klan). Outside of the U.S., paramilitary and militia groups from Colombia to Brazil, Indonesia and India are closing in on institutional power. What is more, they have taken on a global dimension that was not there before or was just not visible. The most prominent agent of this push, both in Europe and the Americas, is Steve Bannon, a sinister and criminal figure who has been sucked up to by a naive or complicit media.

These movements gain social traction, not because they glorify Nazi symbols (to which they do also resort), but because they exploit the social distress caused by democracy’s increasing subordination to capitalism. In other words, they exploit the same social conditions that mobilize the anti-system movements on the left. But whereas the latter view social distress as stemming precisely from subjecting democracy to the demands of capitalism, which are proving increasingly incompatible with the democracy game, for the far-right movements the distress stems from democracy, not capitalism. That is why, just as in the 1930s, the far right is nurtured, protected and financed by certain sectors of capital, notably finance capital, which is the most antisocial of all.

In this context, two questions are in order. First question: why this reemergence of the far-right at a time when, unlike the 1920s-1930s, there is no Communist threat nor any significant trade union militancy? That threat was one of the responses to the grave social and economic crisis of the times. This is not the case at present, but the coming years threaten to be marked by a crisis as serious as the one of that period. Global capitalist think tanks (including those in China) have been warning against the danger of political destabilization resulting from the imminent social and economic crisis, now made worse by the pandemic. They do not take the absence of anti-capitalist or post-capitalist alternatives for granted. They know that such alternatives may arise in the long run, and that “better safe than sorry” is the best approach. The response has multiple levels. The deepest level entails the perfecting of surveillance capitalism, which, thanks to the fourth industrial revolution (artificial intelligence), makes it possible to control people in increasingly effective ways. At a more superficial level we have the fostering of an intimidating anti-democratic, racist and sexist ideology. In this case, the rhetoric of the past is more effective than that of the present, which is why the rhetoric of the far right speaks of the new Communist danger, allegedly lurking both in democratic governments and in Pope Francis’ Vatican. In the U.S., the Democratic Party, center-right, is blasted for being of the radical left, confusedly linked to big capital and the information and communication technologies. In Brazil, the far right currently in power speaks of the danger of “cultural Marxism”, a slogan used by the Nazis to demonize Jewish intellectuals. The aim is to maximize the superimposition of democracy and capitalism by voiding democracy – weak on protecting, strong on repressing – of its social content. The think tanks know that all these plans are contingent and that the anti-system movements can throw them into the dustbin of history. Hence, better safe than sorry.

Second question: is the far right fascist-oriented or not? The far right is not monolithic, nor can it be judged exclusively on the basis of its legal manifestations. Hence the complexity involved in making such a judgment. History teaches us two things. Liberal democracy does not know how to defend itself against the anti-democrats, and, in fact, never since 1945 have we seen anti-democrats being elected to high positions as often as now. They are anti-democrats because, instead of being at the service of democracy, they use it to rise to power (as Hitler did) and, once in power, they neither exercise it democratically nor relinquish it peacefully when they are beaten at the polls. They start out with the support of the conventional media and, after a certain point, of the social media as well, their followers poisoned by the logic of post-truth and “alternative facts”.

Regardless of any dictatorial outcome, today’s far right possesses two of the essential components of Nazi-fascism: glorification of political violence, and the rhetoric of racial hatred against minorities. Dictatorship is yet to come, but some are endorsing torture (Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil) and promoting extrajudicial executions (Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines). The danger of these two components can be exacerbated by three factors. First, the complicity of the courts with a misguided (at best) understanding of what freedom of expression is. Second, the news media’s infatuation with the “unconventional” rhetoric of the proto-fascists and the prominence given to right-wing ideologues, who artificially detach the political message – of which they approve – from what they consider to be disposable excesses (life imprisonment, the forced castration of pedophiles, the deportation of immigrants, the segregation of minorities), disregarding the fact that it is precisely those “excesses” that many of the followers feel attracted to. Third, their legitimation by moderate right-wing politicians, who make them government partners in the hope of taming such excesses. In 1933, in pre-Nazi Germany, the infamous Franz von Pappen played a crucial role in convincing a reluctant President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler to the post of head of government, after which, having himself joined that government, he proved wholly incapable of controlling the Nazis’s putschist “dynamism”.

Defending democracy

Defending democracy against the far right involves many strategies, some short term, others medium term. In the short term, they include illegalization – whenever the Constitution is violated –, political isolation, and particular attention to possible infiltration of the police forces, the army and the media. In the medium term, political reforms aimed at revitalizing democracy and robust social policies aimed at making good on the promise that no person or region of the country will be “left behind”; also, and especially important in a country like Portugal, subjecting the crimes of fascism and colonialism to a political trial, so as to decolonize history and education, foster new forms of cultural citizenship and respect its inherent diversity. Assailed by the global ideology of the far right, democracy will perish easily in the public sphere unless it translates into the material well-being of families and communities. Only then will democracy be in a position to ensure that respect does not give way to hatred and violence, that dignity does not give way to indignity and indifference.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.


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