A wave of populist electoral triumphs has been presented by those who have surfed it into power as reflecting a turn in history’s tide. They should know their history better.
Liberal democracy, Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times in June, has ‘become obsolete.’ The Russian president said the free movement of people which liberals supported was against the interest of ‘the overwhelming majority of the population,’ because it meant, he airily asserted, that ‘migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity.'
It is a key trait of the far-right populists who have come to power in recent times around the world that they engage in such a Freudian projection: from Putin in Russia to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán in Eastern Europe; to Matteo Salvini and Alexander (‘Boris’) Johnson in the West; to Donald Trump in North America and Jair Bolsonaro in Latin America; to Rodrigo Duterte in south-east Asia and Narendra Modi in the Indian subcontinent. The facts — for instance, that migrants to the United States are less likely than the average to engage in criminality — are of no relevance to this manoeuvre.
Whereas the liberal left since the enlightenment has always anticipated a freer and more equal Gesellschaft (society), the Far Right has instead pursued an imaginary regression towards a purportedly homogeneous Gemeinschaft (‘community’). Since history is, however, not a movie which can be re-run backwards, the populists have to engage in a political conjuring trick in which they identify three fictive groups: ‘the people,’ the unsullied national Volk; ‘the other,’ the crime-ridden and disease-carrying outsiders; and ‘the elite,' the fuzzily identified metropolitans determined to impregnate the former with the detritus associated with the latter. The perfect ‘other’ is of course the Jew, because he can be rendered in fevered anti-Semitic minds the cosmopolitan conspirator as well as the ‘noxious bacillus’ (as Hitler put it), to be ghettoised — or much worse.
A conjuring trick this may be but it finds an audience. As the work of the postwar Frankfurt School demonstrated, a significant minority of any given population will be of an ‘authoritarian predisposition,' favourable to the maintenance of traditional social hierarchies, such as patriarchy, and willing to displace unintegrated parts of their own selves on to others — as, for example, when Trump repeatedly claims to have ‘tremendous respect’ for women while having blamed Mexico for supposedly sending ‘rapists’ to the US.
Moreover, classic experiments in social psychology carried out since the Nazi era have demonstrated how individuals of an authoritarian predisposition will be emboldened by legitimising rhetoric from those in authority, The man who shot 20 people dead in El Paso in early August referred in his ‘manifesto’ to a ‘Hispanic invasion’ of Texas, similar to that invoked by Trump in his campaign for an extended border wall.
In addition, a climate of social insecurity turns the populist microphone into a megaphone. Hitler’s political ascent came amid the Great Depression issuing from the 1929 Wall Street crash, whose ripple effects included deflationary budgets in Germany. By the beginning of 1933 when Hitler assumed power, there were six million unemployed.
Putin’s elevation followed the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which saw production in the former Soviet territory plunge by almost half during the decade. And while Far Right populism in Europe has been on the rise since the onset of the neoliberal era in the 1980s, it has flourished since the global financial crisis of 2008, as evidenced, for example, by how ‘Brexit’ voting in the UK’s 2016 referendum extended beyond right-wing authoritarians to those affected by its government’s swingeing austerity.
None of this should, however, lead populists to indulge in the hubris Putin betrayed in his Financial Times interview.
First, it is worth recalling that at the end of the Cold War, an exact opposite grand claim as to history’s arc was made — and its predictive power proved weak. Francis Fukuyama, on his way to a post in the US State Department, asserted in 1989 that liberal democracy (and unregulated markets) would over time become universal. Fukuyama now claims that in the intervening decades the rise of identity politics got in the way.
Secondly, history is more of a pendulum, whose positioning depends on the balance of forces at any one time, than an arrow whose trajectory we can anticipate. Fascism in Germany and Italy came to a rather more ignominious end than its authors had envisaged. This was to issue in, from 1945 onwards, the longest period of progressive social policy and politics in Western Europe and North America ever known.
Could Europe’s pendulum be about to swing? The Far Right populists, for whom the ‘nation state’ is the only meaningful political unit, didn’t do as well in the European Parliament elections in May as they would have hoped. Turnout rose by eight percentage points to encompass a majority of entitled citizens, driven by much greater participation by young people. This reflected, according to a post-election survey, the highest level of support for the European Union (68%) since 1983 and the highest concurrence (56%) with the view that respondents’ voice counted in the EU since the question was first asked in 2002.
While 44% of those who voted had done so primarily out of a concern for the economy and growth, the survey found that 37% prioritised climate change and the same proportion human rights and democracy, reflected in the strong results for the green and liberal political families.
On the street, moreover, the greatest movement in the past year has not been the marching feet of the serried ranks of populist supporters but the school students mobilised by Greta Thunberg’s school-striking call. At least as significant as its youthfulness and female leadership has been how it has run entirely counter to the populist narrative prioritising prejudice over ‘fake news,' returning instead to the enlightenment tradition of objective scientific evidence.
The ‘green New Deal’ and the ‘just transition’ have meanwhile offered a new discourse, in Europe and the US, through which to link the causes of ecological modernisation and protection of workers’ rights, resisting the wedge between represented by the ephemeral gilets jaunes movement in France.
Moreover, the global standard-setting work on ‘intercultural integration’ by the Council of Europe for over a decade has demonstrated — including through the 136-strong Intercultural Cities network — how the demographic diversity of today’s urban life can be turned to advantage, if well managed, rather than treated as a threat.
Two big question marks remain, however. First, have Big Oil and Big Coal done so much damage to the biosphere — and so deliberately confused the global-heating argument for decades — that the onrush of irreversible climate change and biodiversity destruction is simply unstoppable? That should, however, be a counsel for urgent action — the house is burning, as Thunberg puts it — rather than despair.
Secondly, the progressive era was heavily dependent on the strength of social democracy in Western Europe and the US (and the perceived threat from Soviet communism). While it is now widely accepted on the political left that the period of ‘third way’ and Neue Mitte revisionism associated with UK and German social democrats respectively — and not only with them — was ultimately a trust-sapping cul de sac, the jury also remains out on whether recovery is possible. The Portuguese geringonça (‘contraption’) coalition of red, redder and green political forces has shown, however, that pluralist liberal-left governance can be effective and popular.
• Dr Robin Wilson is general editor of Social Europe and author of Meeting the Challenge of Cultural Diversity in Europe: Moving Beyond the Crisis (Edward Elgar, 2018)
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