Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Aaron Winter (2000) 'The 'New' Right: Definition, Identification, Differentiation'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <>

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Received: 10/5/2000      Accepted: 30/5/2000      Published: 31/5/2000


There is a new spectre on the horizon. Just when we thought that we had heard the last of the right, there is a resurgence of right-wing movements around the world, in the UK, the US, France, Italy, Germany, and most recently in Austria.

Such statements typically introduce articles or books that claim to have identified a new phenomenon and a new object of analysis - 'The New Right'. Underlying these statements and the literature on the New Right, there is the assumption that there is an identified, differentiated, and thus defined, New Right that exists as a uniform phenomenon. I will argue that the identifications and differentiations employed to define the New Right are based on conceptual, political, historical, temporal and contextual assumptions. And that these assumptions are imposed on, incorporated into and come to define the object itself. The imposition and incorporation of our own identifications and the historical, temporal and contextual frameworks used to differentiate and define the New Right, obscure the disparate character of new right phenomena. I will therefore interrogate the concept in terms of these defining assumptions and re-think the definition and approach.


Definitions of the New Right always include or are based on references to Thatcher, Reagan, liberalism, laissez-faire economics, racism, anti-immigration or anti- abortion. Through these references, the object is not only identified, but defined as both an already known entity and the model we use for further analysis. The first section deals with the issue of identification in the process of defining and understanding the New Right. First I will look at the process of identification in defining and establishing the New Right as an object and ask whether our identifications define the object or the object determines the identifications. Second I look at the assumptions implicit in the identification, and thus definition, of the New Right as an object. I will present two potential problems or implications with a theoretical model that applies an object definition that is dependant on such identifications.

The analysis of any social or political phenomenon that attracts our attention depends on a conceptualization and definition of what we initially observe or identify, and through which 'it' becomes an object. The arrived upon definition simultaneously binds and defines the initial identifications, establishing them as the boundaries and identity of the object. This definition provides the basis to begin an analysis. Yet the object, by virtue of our own posited assumptions, identifications and references, is an already known entity and potentially problematic model. When we see something new that attracts our attention we initially see it through specific phenomena or signs. We ask what these signs signify or represent, with the desire to understand and define them. We do this by locating the meaning of such signs within our own frame of reference. The fact that such signs attract our attention in the first place is based on our ability to identify these, locate them and their potential meaning within a larger economy of signs that are informed by how they resonate with our already existing frame of reference.

When we see evidence of a rise in anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-welfare, law and order rhetoric or policies, we locate these as signifiers within a symbolic economy of the right that we have determined from past manifestations. It is the past historical manifestations that provide the referential form and the symbolic economy that enables us to construct or assemble a particular constellation of signs with the new identified material. Thus establishing a new form or object, whose defining properties are the identifications that were initially observed.

This would not necessarily be a problem except that, as the initial identifications determine the arrived-upon definition, they become bound together as one and the same. After identifying and defining an object as known, there are two questions: First, whether the identifying signs determine and define the object or whether the already existing object determines the identifications? To which I would argue, it works both ways simultaneously. Second, can the object exist as a defined entity beyond our referential identifications that the definition is built on? To which I would argue, it cannot. If the initial identifying signs are incorporated into the definition of an object, where they become its defining properties, and thus its identity, what occurs is a perpetual dislocation of the object to a circular play of signifiers.

A defined object should always be what is signified by a set of references and indicators, which serve as signifiers of that object. In the case of the 'New Right', the initial identifying signs of liberalism, laissez-faire economics, racism, Thatcherism or Reaganism come to signify the New Right as the signified object. Although the New Right is set up as the signified object, as these signs are incorporated into the definition, the New Right is constitutionally dependant on them as its defining properties and identity. Therefore when we hear of the New Right, there is always a necessary return of signification in which it is the signifiers of liberalism, racism, Thatcherism, etc. which are ultimately signified to understand and know the object. An example of this is David G. Green's The New Right: The Counter Revolution in Political, Economic and Social Thought. Green argues that the New Right represents and can be defined as a revival of liberalism (Green 1987, 2), what follows is an analysis of the history, theory and application of liberalism to explain the New Right. In such a case the New Right does not exist as an object outside what the author determines is not only the initial signifier but the definition and thus the signified, taking on its history and identity.

Without such signs or concepts as liberalism or racism explicitly in the definition of the New Right, it is empty of meaning or content. Without a defined New Right to tie these signs together within a particular discourse or form, they remain as facts of life that already exist within a more general economy of political theory, rhetoric, discourse and debates about the economy or immigration. As the New Right is defined through such signs or concepts and they serve to signify it in return, neither can operate freely without recourse to the other. The definition is dependant on the identifications posited and the identifications tied through the circular play of signifiers, through which the object is established and known.

This has practical implications on two levels: First, if it is through such identifying signs that we define the New Right, how can we deal with cases or issues that exceed or deviate from the original definition? Do we exclude or incorporate them? Can the definition accommodate them or do they change the definition itself? And second, defining and tying the object according to our initial identifications does not naturally reflect that of the object itself. Thus, are we defining it according to our own terms, or does it have terms and identifications of its own that are bypassed altogether?

The first problem with such a model or definition of the New Right is its potential application to subsequent cases and their incorporation into the defined model. The question is: Once we define an object or phenomenon according to how it is initially identified, and establish those identifications as constitutional to the identity, definition and theoretical model to be applied, how are subsequent cases or phenomena dealt with? For example, subsequent cases that express or employ signifiers in rhetoric or policy that have been determined to be constitutional to, and therefore signified by, the New Right such as racism, anti-immigration, anti-welfare, etc. Are they related and incorporated because they fit within our defined model? Are they the same as or extensions of that preexisting model? What if something develops in another context or time that does not fit our model due to its contextual specificity? Examples of such contextual dislocation would be the case of Hague's Tories in the absence of Thatcher, and in the context of New Labour or Newt Gingrich's 'Contract with America' in the absence of Reagan and in the context of Clinton. Can we make such cases fit our model or does the model itself have to change?

This may force us to realize that the initial identifications or signifiers that go into the creation of our definition are contextually specific and contingent, not defining properties but rather simple indicators. For example, Hague's anti-asylum rhetoric can be seen in relation to, and as an extension of, the New Right of Powell and Thatcher. But in reference to the EU, it can be seen in relation to the rhetoric of Haider and the Freedom Party, in the far right. So where does Hague fit? Is he further evidence of the New Right, a slide to the far right, or merely the populist rhetoric of a politician whose electoral and power potential is under threat, by a new 'threat' on the horizon? How strictly tied is the definition to the initial identifications so that it delimits itself and its boundaries accurately, but can accommodate different events and contexts while not losing site of those very boundaries. Although always dependent on identifications and references, the definition cannot be solely that, contingent on what we first see as defining the object itself.

The second problem concerns the relationship and conflict between internal and external identifications. How we identify, define and analyze any object always encounters the problem of understanding an object through externally imposed frameworks. This problem cannot be absolutely overcome but it is important not to mistake one's own identifications for those of the 'object'. We frequently focus on and understand the New Right in negative terms such as racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-feminism, anti-abortion, anti- immigration, etc. My concern is that there may be a tendency to misread identifications or identifying characteristics based on what are our own identifications, subjectivities or political sensibilities and affiliations, particularly when the discourse is oppositional.

Not all literature on the New Right is oppositional. However work which ties its analysis and understanding of the New Right with politically oppositional objectives is particularly problematic. An example of this is Ruth Levitas who, in her introduction to The Ideology of the New Right, states that "... the ideological shift which the New Right has brought about remains to be reversed. The purpose of this book is to contribute to an understanding of the New Right - and thus contribute to that reversal" (Levitas 1986, 22).

Such oppositional identification is more specifically evident in Rosalind Petchesky's article Antiabortion, Antifeminism and the Rise of the New Right in which she argues that these are the focal points of New Right politics in America. She argues that it was "opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which identified the New Right" (Petchesky 1981, 207). Petchesky goes on to define, analyze and explain the New Right solely on these terms. By defining the New Right this way, it becomes our exact opposite, the negative of (or anti-) us, and not something unto itself. Thus we engage in a process where we only know the other (the New Right) by its relation and difference to ourselves, making our position and identity dominant, and the other nonexistent as a separate entity and identity with a voice of its own.

Regardless of how offensive what that voice says may be to our ears, These movements and discourses have a self-identity, definition and identifications that are being expressed. Although expressed through negative positions, they are positive on their own terms. While this is not enough to base an analysis on, it should be taken into consideration, as all identities employ a negative/affirmative differentiation. The self-definition of a New Right party or group will not be based simply on racism or anti-feminism, nor will its identifications be solely negative or 'anti'. The self-definition and identifications may be based on defensive (although never benign) affirmations of the traditional 'norm', nation, citizenship, whiteness, Christianity, maleness, family, heterosexuality, etc.

In a context in which the traditional 'norm' is not only being challenged but eroded, the perceived 'threat' becomes the negative which is identified, necessitates and informs the mobilization and affirmation of such identifications, but it is not the identification or definition itself. By imposing our own identifications to 'know' and analyse the New Right we are in danger of simply reaffirming our own identifications and positions instead of introducing them as an insightful nodal point for critique. These identifications should not be excluded or ignored, but should not be mistaken for those of our object, thus replacing its own.


This second section will deal with the issue of differentiation in the definition and understanding of the New Right. The term and idea of the New Right presumes a differentiation from a previous phenomenon or object. At the same time it creates a category that is inclusive and internally undifferentiated. I will look at the issue of differentiation in two parts: First I will ask whether there is a New Right in terms of a historical or temporal differentiation between the New and Old Right. Second I will ask whether the New Right is a uniform phenomenon or one that can be generalized across different contexts, in relation to and in distinction between the universal and particular.

In terms of the historical or temporal differentiation of the New Right, I will argue that the differentiation between Old and New is partly informed by and framed through historical presumptions. It has been noted in various texts that, we thought that we had heard the last of the right but have recognized signs or cases of its rise and resurgence (Levitas 1986, 1; Ansell 1997, 1). This assumption and the surprise at the new encounter do not encourage us to reevaluate our assumptions. Rather they force us to conceptualize new phenomena within the framework of such assumptions. This is not to say we should have expected a rise in the right or that there is no change in its discourse. But because of our assumptions and the presence of a historical break between what we have seen in the past and what we are presently seeing, the belief that the Old and the New Right cannot be the same is reinforced. At the same time there is a reliance on past manifestations to recognize and conceptualize the present manifestation as extensions of previous ones. The relationship between the Mosley right and Thatcher right, between the anti-asylum or law and order rhetoric of Thatcher and Hague, or between Hitler and Haider (a 'new FAR right'?), provide a comparative and differentiating framework. Each represents a different time in history, cultural, political and social context and issues, yet they are always seen in relation to one another. It is only through the relation to, or the resonance of our preexisting model of the right (in Hague's case the memory of the Thatcher New Right), that we frame the rise or resurgence, the continuity or discontinuity of movements. And it is through these that we provide the references that both tie the new manifestation to the original name and differentiate it as something new and possibly unseen.

The historical or temporal differentiation also forces us to ask what is new about the New Right, thus focusing on the use of historical identifications as evidence. This raises the question whether new, and possibly unseen, political issues, references and strategic approaches provide the evidence to clearly differentiate the Old and New right, and inform the development of a new theoretical model. The political issues, references and approaches within the discourse and rhetoric of the New Right are undoubtedly different than those of earlier times.

We have seen the emergence of contemporary issues such as abortion, new reproductive technologies, and the effect of new media technologies which are all seen as dangerous or corrupting (although the internet has become the newest means of disseminating right-wing ideas), new waves of immigration, law and order issues, new rights legislation, and new forms of power such as the EU, UN, NAFTA and NATO. These are viewed as somehow unique or radically different from the issues and waves of change that preceded them and mobilized the Old Right. In fact these are probably no more significant in scale and consequence than previous waves of immigration or asylum seekers; Or the abolition of slavery, the introduction of civil rights and affirmative action legislation; Or older power structures such as the treaty of Versailles and the unification of the States after the Civil War. While the times and the issues change, for the right these new issues resonate with older ones and mobilize them just the same, although the specific issue of concern, strategic approach and discourse will change.

To say that these new issues, causes or approaches signify a New Right would be as true for the next wave as for the present - a 'newer' right or a 'new-newer' right. As much as these signifiers are different, they relate closely to earlier issues and signifiers. It is how they resonate with both the activists and theorists in the process of recognition and mobilization that collapses any clear differentiation between traditional and New Right. To ignore the link these issues provide, the resonance they have or framework they operate through is to ignore that there is more of a symbolic economy of the right than strictly specified forms. The specificity and contingency of these movements and of our diverse definitions may have more to do with the specific and contingent issues and identifications that we define and differentiate them through.

The second issue of differentiation concerns the relationship and distinction between the universal and particular, concerning the possibility of a unified New Right across diverse contexts. This is the idea of the New Right that refers to a global phenomenon that encompasses manifestations in diverse contexts. Although it is recognized that there is a phenomenon occurring, the question is: Are they all part of the same phenomenon, can they be grouped within the singular umbrella signifier of the New Right against their individual issues, approaches, discourses, cultural and political contexts and influences? Perhaps these differences are overlooked because the links are perceived to be stronger than these contextual differences. Perhaps because the identified signifiers of liberalism, laissez-faire economics, anti- abortion, anti-immigration, anti-affirmative action, etc. supercede the specific approach or discourse in a given context, or that it is a global phenomenon that is being responded to, explicitly or implicitly, in different contexts.

Globalization is a trope that is commonly used to account for and encompass new and potentially contradictory phenomena or movements. Globalization is seen as a phenomenon that occurs everywhere and affects everything. Thus it transgresses contextual borders and hence escapes the need to account for contextual specificity in analysis. The EU, UN, NATO, NAFTA, WTO, the internet, and increased migration are all more obvious examples of this. All are factors in globalization and the effects of it, thus, they affect the political scene and the formation of movements. We are told that cultural, political, social, psychological and ontological dislocation, instability or insecurity, disembedding, and fragmentation is occurring (to evoke Ulrich Beck (2000) and Anthony Giddens (1990)). This can be seen in, or rather used to, interpret new social and political movements. It is used to explain phenomenon such as the New Right(s), Far Right(s), anti-EU nationalism, resistance to increased immigration, religious fundamentalism, the US Militia movement and their anti-UN discourse and the fear and use of new media technologies by the New Right. Differences in this sense serve as evidence of cultural responses and not differences themselves. They ignore, not only the contextually specific effects, but the origins and frameworks that different cases are mediated through.

As discussed earlier, definitions of the New Right employ such terms and references as Thatcherism, Reaganism, liberalism, racism or anti-immigration to identify and define the New Right. In order to understand the New Right, we have to realise that each case brings with it culturally and contextually specific features. The identification or definition from one context fails to address the New Right in another, and subsumes all different versions under a misleading single definition. Definitions tend to be implicitly or explicitly contextually framed and dependent, too contextually specific and subjective to capture the phenomenon in its entirety, and too generalized to be aware of such radical contextual differences. For example, the new Right in the UK has to be understood with reference to Thatcher and Powell; Neo-Liberal laissez-faire economic policy related to the left/right divide and the welfare state; national sovereignty and anti-immigration discourses related to EU policy and borders. They must also be understood in relation to issues such as the town/country divide, class, the Thatcher legacy, the success of New Labour and the problems facing Hague and the Tories.

In the US, Thatcher and the EU are irrelevant. The New Right has to be understood in reference to Reaganism; laissez-faire economics and the free-market related to religion; law and order related to the constitutional right to bear arms and the NRA; conservatism related to religion; anti- abortion in relation to religion and the constitutional "right to life"; liberalism (and the ideas of liberty and individualism) related to the myth of the frontier, the constitution and the American Revolution; the notion of big government related to the post-civil war federal unification of the States, federally centralized power and the issue of state sovereignty, taxation related to the federal/state history and division; And racism, sexism, anti-gay discourses related to the legacy of Slavery, the civil rights movement, the equal rights amendment, and multiculturalism.

The emergence and discourses of a New and Far Right in Germany and Austria, cannot avoid either internal or external reference to Nazism. While those emerging in the former Soviet Union cannot avoid reference to the fall of the Communism. It is not enough to address these historical and cultural issues, but it is necessary to understand that they actually influence language itself - from the definition and discourse of terms such as freedom, liberty, sovereignty, individuality, equality, taxation, rights, race, gender, sexuality, power, minority or marginality.

In this sense, three issues must be taken into consideration when defining the New Right. First, if a definition or explanation is tied to any contextually specific identifications or issues such as Thatcherism, Reaganism, the EU, NAFTA, the welfare state or religion, the definition of the New Right excludes cases that are seen as evidence of its existence as a global phenomenon. More specifically, such a definition fails to address and understand other manifestations within its ideological realm. This is an important point made by Ruth Levitas in her introduction to The Ideology of the New Right. Although the individual essays within the text do not reflect this. They identify, define and explain the New Right through contextually and conceptually specific references to Thatcherism, liberalism, laissez-faire economics, Neo-Conservatism, anti-Socialism or the welfare state. Although the American and French New Right are included in the text, they are themselves in contextually limited case studies. For a cross-cultural compilation, the relationship between cases of the New Right, is not evident.

Second, the general themes, issues or identifications that are seen in common create a chain of equivalence that, if generalized to overcome contextual differences, can be used to apply to the far right, hard right, extreme right or religious right, conservatism, nationalism, populism or fascism, which obscures the point. An example of this is Levitas' argument that racism defines the far right and differentiates it from the New Right (Levitas 1986, 8), while at the same time arguing that racism defines the New Right in France which differentiates it from the British model (Levitas 1986, 5). And third, the use of language in a general definition or identification of the New Right must, as the issues themselves, be understood to be culturally and historically specific, and cannot cross over without losing the meaning that gives them their currency in a particular context or economy.


In conclusion, while I realize that I have given little in the way of redefining the New Right, I am by no means arguing that the definitions, identifications and differentiations proposed are meaningless or arbitrary. But it is the assumptions implicit in this process of defining the New Right and the conclusions drawn that are of concern. The concept and definition of the New Right and the idea that it is a uniform or general phenomenon must be contested and re-thought in light of our imposed conceptual frameworks, political positions, historically, temporal, contextual and universalizing assumptions which are used to identify, differentiate and define the New Right. The New Right may in fact be too disparate to be fully conceptualized or defined. But that does not mean that nothing new exists or that there is nothing to be analyzed.

Perhaps the solution is too theorize new right phenomena in their various manifestations and contexts and not the New Right as a uniform phenomenon, or to focus on particular facets of the New Right. Such projects have been undertaken by scholars such as Anna Marie Smith (1994) in New Right Discourse on Race and Sexuality: Britain 1968-1990, who focuses on the New Right in Britain in terms of its discourses on race and sexuality (as opposed to defining the New Right through them). Another example is Linda Kintz (1997) in Between Jesus and Market, who works on different facets of the New Right specific to America (Christian media and religion, politics and emotion), or Barry Hindess' (1990) Reactions to the Right. As well as comparative studies of the New Right in Britain and America such Ansell's (1997) New Right, New Racism. These texts all clearly define, identify and differentiate their particular subject matter and approach to the New Right. Thus contributing to the wealth of perspectives, fuelling knowledge and debate, without attempting to create and define the object itself. Such approaches are necessary so that we can critically engage with our subject matter, and not construct it or force it to engage on our terms.


ANSELL, Amy Elizabeth (1997) New Right, New Racism. London: MacMillan Press.

BECK, Ulrich (2000) What Is Globalization? Cambridge: Polity Press.

GIDDENS, Anthony (1990) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

GREEN, David G. (1987) The New Right: The Counter Revolution in Political, Economic and Social Thought. Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books.

HINDESS, Barry (1990) Reactions to the Right. London: Routledge.

KINTZ, Linda (1997) Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions That Matter in Right-Wing America. London: Duke University Press.

LEVITAS, Ruth, (1996) 'Introduction' in R. Levitas (editor) The Ideology of the New Right. Cambridge: Polity.

PETCHESKY, Rosalind Pollack (1981) 'Antiabortion, Antifeminism, and the Rise of the New Right', Feminist Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 206-246.

SMITH, Anna Marie (1994) New Right Discourse on Race and Sexuality: Britain 1968-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000