We must look to the past and our books to understand the dangers of right-wing populism
Lessons from the past
On 1 July 2017, leaders past and present bade farewell to former German chancellor Helmuth Kohl, who had died on 16 June. In the first ceremony of its kind, the Act of Honour in Strasbourg was decidedly European rather than German, reminding the continent’s citizens not only of their often violent history but also of their crisis-ridden present. Kohl, described by the Guardian as ‘[d]our and imperturbable’, will be remembered chiefly for his role in German reunification, European integration and, by many Germans on the political left, for his arrogant and unrepentant handling of a party funding scandal after his electoral defeat in 1998. Yet, despite numerous political and family scandals in his later years, the European dimension of Kohl’s political life left behind some truly iconic images for posterity.
Commemorating the fallen of the Battle of Verdun in September 1984, Kohl and then French president François Mitterand famously held hands at the site of the Western Front’s deadliest battle during World War One. Given the equally deadly history of Franco-German relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this image is all the more remarkable as a gesture of reconciliation, cooperation and, most importantly, unity. A little more than three decades later, however, one looks in vain for similarly powerful tokens of transnational friendship. In lieu of forging closer ties, Europe’s leaders struggle to find adequate responses to current Eurosceptic tendencies across the continent. And another factor complicating their vital task of keeping the Union politically stable is the rise of right-wing populism. Populism, as Cas Mudde has explained in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs, is a pattern of thought that separates “society into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite.’” Accordingly, right-wing politicians use populist arguments in order to exploit widespread fears (for example, over immigration, Islam or left-wing politics), claiming to speak on behalf of ordinary citizens who are no longer being heard by the out-of-touch elite. However, the ramifications of populist strategies are momentous and, at times, disastrous.
The populist present
After the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump’s electoral victory and a general upsurge of right-wing parties in Europe, the political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic has become more polarised. And disenchanted with the European project in the wake of the debt crisis, many citizens have become increasingly critical of the EU, its institutions and the Euro as common currency. Subsequent to this turmoil, the Union has had to face even more challenges when growing numbers of refugees from war-torn countries started arriving on its shores. People from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia, among others, are desperately trying to escape the conflicts in their home countries, often viewing the relative peace, freedom and stability of the European Union as a safe haven.
Initially spurred into action by the tremendous economic grievances of recent years, right-wing populists have found fertile ground and gullible minds for their distorted, conspiratorial and millenarian worldviews. At a time when the predominantly Muslim refugees both need and deserve support, the populists have changed course and taken aim at society’s most vulnerable members. In so doing, they continue to channel the populace’s disaffection into a distinctly anti-democratic and regressive stance that actively seeks to undermine the hard-won democratic consensus in the EU and beyond. In an irreducibly complex and politically fragmented world, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and their ilk continue to fan the flames of discontent at the expense of ethno-religious and other minorities.
Accordingly, the twin challenges of global migration and the European economic crisis epitomise the demise of neoliberalism, the economic philosophy popularised by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the USA and Britain respectively. In the 1980s, Reagan and Thatcher kicked off massive waves of privatisations of formerly nationalised industries, rolled back the state’s involvement in public services and favoured a largely unregulated form of capitalism, which left ordinary workers less well off than before. The broadcaster and journalist Paul Mason has recently dissected these developments, stating that instead of precipitating a return to old-fashioned conservatism (as embodied by Kohl and others of his generation), the failure of neoliberal economics has continued to give rise to authoritarian right-wing populism.
At the same time, neoliberalism has fuelled societal disintegration, irreversible industrial decline and a hostile climate of anti-intellectualism in the political sphere. Of course, the trajectory of Donald Trump fits squarely into this pattern. Appealing to an almost exclusively white audience, and building his campaign upon xenophobia, crude sexism and irresponsible simplifications, the reality TV-star-turned-politician has not only produced numerous scandals and public relations disasters, he has also contributed to a political climate in which manners, erudition and fact-based decision-making incur the wrath of both himself and his supporters.
Indeed, the political climate in both the US and Europe is toxic for a plethora of reasons. For example, Trump refuses to recognise scientific evidence of man-made climate change, Kellyanne Conway rebrands obvious falsehoods as ‘alternative facts’, and the New York Times reports that foreign diplomats residing in Washington D.C. started trading tips of how best to approach the boisterous and vociferous man who moved into the White House six months ago (‘Keep it short – no 30-minute monologue for a 30-second attention span. Do not assume he knows the history of [a given] country or its major points of contention’). As a consequence, Salon.com described Trump as ‘loud, obnoxious, unlettered and uninformed’, saying that ‘he doesn’t read books.’ The same publication asks if it is ‘any surprise […] that he has become the anti-intellectual Moses of the 21st century?’ Most importantly, however, the realm of right-wing populism is no longer solely inhabited by such anti-intellectuals as Trump. The eminent German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk sparked outrage in September 2015 when, in gruesome Machiavellian fashion, he called for ‘well-tempered cruelty’ towards refugees, favouring a European ‘territorial imperative’ over global solidarity.
Defending himself as being ‘conservatively left-wing’ in Germany’s flagship newspaper Die Zeit, Sloterdijk accuses his critics of misrepresenting his heartfelt concerns about social cohesion. Whilst raising such concerns is not a problem, leaving oneself vulnerable to being co-opted by right-wing populists is, especially if one’s remarks are strongly and ambiguously worded. And what is more, Sloterdijk’s ‘territorial imperative’ evokes Immanuel Kant’s famous ‘categorical imperative’, a binding moral obligation to treat one’s fellow citizens in an ethical fashion. In the current political climate, then, such phrases as ‘territorial imperative’ are likely to be taken out of context by populists, eventually bolstering their xenophobic rhetoric and hyperbole.
A future of activism
What, we might ask, can those do who feel compelled to be a force for good in the world? The answer to this question is threefold. Firstly, those who want to stem the populist tide can get organised to achieve progressive change. The Women’s March a day after Trump’s inauguration was an appropriate political response to the populist normalisation of sexism during the Trump-campaign. Jeremy Corbyn’s sensational comeback in the run up to this year’s snap election thwarted Theresa May’s plans for ‘strong and stable’ leadership after the electorate had refused to buy into her new-found identity as a hard-core Brexiteer. And Germany’s upcoming general election in September 2017 is another opportunity for Europe’s progressives to promote their agenda and challenge populist narratives.
Secondly, since right-wing populism thrives on the ignorance of the public, progressive activists should continue to read, teach and make known to the wider public those cultural artefacts that aid our understanding of political processes. After Trump’s aid Kellyanne Conway used the phrase ‘alternative facts’, the sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 have soared since the beginning of this year. Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, another equally nightmarish vision of the future, tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman whose job it is to burn books. However, as soon as he develops a predilection for the printed word, he is able to see how strident commercials and ubiquitous propaganda are designed to prevent any shred of independent or critical thought: ‘The train radio vomited upon Montag, in retaliation, a great tonload of music made of tin, copper, silver, chromium, and brass. The people were pounded into submission; they did not run, there was no place to run […].’ Accordingly, promoting an appreciation of learning can help us and others to comprehend the dynamics of the societies in which we live, especially when the leading populist of our time is averse to reading.
Thirdly, right-wing populists have identified Muslims as enemies, accusing them of practicing an intrinsically violent faith. But beyond media portrayals, many non-Muslims are unaware that the Arabic command iqra, or ‘read’, was the first word of the Qur’an ever revealed to the Prophet Mohammad, making Islam a knowledge-based rather than a violent faith. What is more, Muslims need not be alone in defending and peacefully practicing their religion because the Bible is an equally powerful and uplifting source of comfort when crude populism pays little attention to decorum, manners and compassion. For example, in James 1:27, we can read: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’ Accordingly, political activism, literature and faith are three interrelated, but by no means the only, sources of inspiration and hope for those amongst us who refuse to stand by silently when right-wing populists preach hate and seek to destroy transnational solidarity.
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