Central and Eastern Europe, Long reads

Feinberg: An Austere Place of Refuge

Probably for the first time since the end of World War II, it is not only rebellious youth, hasty social critics, and war correspondents in the eastern and southeastern reaches of the continent who speak of the return of fascism.
@ Kancelaria Premiera, Flickr.com

Nations in their barbarous condition are impenetrable;
they must be broken into…
Vico, The New Science, Book I, Axiom CII, proposition 303 [1]


Europe’s 2015 has been marked by two questions and two remarkable political responses: the question of austerity, met by the abortive rise of the radical left, and the question of migration, met by the still-unchecked rise of the radical right. Austerity and migration have been central to European politics for some time, but 2015 has finally brought them together. Much of the success of the radical right can be traced to the consistent and comprehensive answer it provides to both these questions. And the future of the left may also hang on its ability to consistently and comprehensively counter the radical right. And, as the traditional center loses ground and grows increasingly extremist, a lot hangs on the future of the left.

The Center Does Not Hold

On November 17, 2015, less than a week after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the massacre of 130 civilians in Paris, current Czech president and former Social Democratic prime minister Miloš Zeman attended a rally in Prague. He called on his fellow citizens to resist the mass media’s attempts to brainwash us into tolerance toward Muslims, and he pleaded instead for tolerance “toward those who hold other views.” He then turned the microphone over some of those with “other” views, including Martin Konvička, leader of the “Bloc against Islam,” who advocates sending Muslims to concentration camps, restricting the civil rights of Muslim sympathizers, and burning his ideological opponents to death. White supremacists and conspiracy mongers, but also hundreds of otherwise upstanding citizens, cheered in the crowd. Officially, the occasion was Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day, a national holiday commemorating Nazi violence against student protestors on November 17, 1939 and the beginning of massive pro-democracy protests on the same date in 1989. But it seems that in Europe today almost anything can be made into a pretext for impassioned oratory against the tyranny of multiculturalism and Muslims (whose shivering, unarmed legions of refugees, in this case, are placed in the role of Nazi and Soviet occupiers).

What is striking today is that gestures like Miloš Zeman’s can now be expected even from supposed representatives of the center and left, and even in countries with minimal experience of mass immigration.

Of course, anti-immigrant groups have been active in Europe for decades, but they have generally gained broad popularity only in the countries of the West that actually have significant numbers of immigrants. And until recently only the extreme right has articulated xenophobia into an all-encompassing worldview. What is striking today is that gestures like Miloš Zeman’s can now be expected even from supposed representatives of the center and left, and even in countries with minimal experience of mass immigration. The liberal-conservative-social-democratic center, whose hegemony until recently went virtually unchallenged in Europe, now finds itself disintegrating from within and threatened from without. Wherever the radical left has been weak, the radical right has stepped up, and parties once considered extremist turn toward the political mainstream, reformulating the traditional extremist positions in more publicly palatable form. But mainstream parties too find themselves adopting or flirting with—or riven apart by—the message of this new right-wing radicalism.

Probably for the first time since the end of World War II, it is not only rebellious youth, hasty social critics, and war correspondents in the eastern and southeastern reaches of the continent who speak of the return of fascism. Echoes of the 1930’s and 40’s pervade the mainstream media, and fears of repeating the old cycle have entered polite conversation. The parallels have become too striking to ignore: Once again, a group of people, labeled by religion and race, impoverished but accused of wealth and influence, is the object of denunciation and hate. Masses of refugees, fleeing oppression and war, are denied safe haven, are deported or interned in squalid camps and subjected to police harassment and raids. Those that find decent shelter live in fear of vigilante attacks. One country, lauded for its defense of Jews under Nazi occupation, now moves to confiscate the property of refugees. Another country proposes stripping terrorists of citizenship. We are told of a clash of incommensurable civilizations (which have somehow been living together for centuries). We are told of foreign elements infecting national purity at home, while we search for Christians to identify with in the Middle East, much the way the protectors of Germany once sought out countrymen in distant valleys of the Carpathians or along the shores of the Volga. Civil liberties are curtailed in the interests of security. Barbed wire fences are raised all around us (this time around, though, with some technological help from the state of Israel). (And I leave aside the possibility of a Hitler-style Putin invasion, so widely feared a year or two ago, now largely forgotten and in my opinion much less likely than the development of some new Hitler in the continent’s heart.)

What happened?

Materialist Identitarianism

Truth be told, there are no real second comings in this world, but this fact offers small consolation. The new radical right will not bring back the 1930’s, but what it does bring is troubling enough. The media have understandably focused on the relationship between today’s xenophobic groups and the extreme right of old. These connections are real. The xenophobes of today have been repackaging the traditional extremists’ program, granting new legitimacy to ethnic nationalism, coded (and sometimes less coded) racism, and the growing police state. Some of the rising right-wing parties, like Jobbik and Golden Dawn, even offer romantic visions of national renewal grounded in past glory, quick blood, and fertile soil, none of which would be out of place in in the World War II-era regimes that they openly admire. But a larger part of the xenophobic movement is more humble in its aims and low-key in its demands. Denying any sympathy for fascism, it advocates the drab ideal of the simple life that preceded the influx of immigrants and the influence of Islam. And some xenophobic forces—those most politically successful—have been quite straightforwardly materialist in their programmatic claims: they want to keep the wealth and welfare of Europe for Europeans themselves.

When Douglas Holmes analyzed the rising radical right in his 2000 book Integral Europe, he emphasized the spiritual dimensions of its revolt against immigration, cosmopolitanism, and “fast” global capitalism. This spiritual dimension has not disappeared, but it is no longer so central to the relatively unified tendency bridging the nationalist extreme and the pragmatic center that increasingly goes by the name of “the new right.” Nazism and its ideological neighbors may have been petty bourgeois in the final analysis, but they were anti-bourgeois in style and self-understanding. The new right is proudly petty and is bourgeois through and through. It is less interested in the hard-handed peasants than it is in the proper and well-bred middle class. In its publicity, “the people” appears much less often than “freedom.” It is less concerned with re-establishing lost greatness than in maintaining current privilege within an ever more interconnected world. The dominant tendency of this new right does not call on its followers to beat up its enemies in the street—its sympathizers on the radical fringes do, but its leaders don’t—all they ask is that the enemy never be let onto their streets in the first place, so as to prevent imagined confrontation in advance. The threat of mass immigration by a plausibly foreign element presented the new right with the perfect foil. It was not necessary to goad the comfortable masses to pogroms. The public only needed to join them in saying, “The plight of others is none of my business. Send them away.”

This new right has been long in the making. The global market has long been erasing or commodifying cultural difference, and as the political sphere is mobilized in response, culture is divided and defended along established political borders. But not only cultural difference is at issue. The European social pact, once accepted by Christian democrats, liberals, and social democrats alike, has been largely abandoned, and social welfare has been transformed from a point of convergence into a scarce good, an object of competitive struggle. When the European political establishment chose to address the sovereign debt along Europe’s perimeter by turning the whole nations into creditors of their neighbors, competition over the continent’s wealth further intensified. And as national states become decreasingly reliable guarantors of welfare, and as their internal democratic processes are undermined by transnational bureaucracy, faith in traditional parliamentarianism wanes. The traditional parties of the south are punished by voters for selling out their countries to creditors, while the traditional parties of the prosperous center and northwest are punished for sharing too much with the spendthrift south.

This was the situation into which immigrants had the misfortune to step in 2015. A continent already riven by internal competition saw in them yet another group looking for its share. Nations already anxious over their loss of self-determination projected their fears of foreign power onto a group that had virtually no power over them. Electorates troubled by their own decaying democracies saw “waves” and “floods” of migrants, and they were reminded of their own internal chaos. People already disoriented by the homogenizing effects of global capitalism saw immigrants as a personification of market forces—which were, after all, at least partially responsible for the depressions, famines, and wars, not to mention the history of colonialism, that drove them to migrate. As the immigrants became increasingly designated as Muslim, “Islam” became an object of fear, made all the more powerful by its vagueness and mystery—a floating signifier capable of centering and unifying the entire discursive system of the new right.

The rhetoric against Islam has framed the new right’s program within a clash of civilizations or culture wars. But what kind of culture and civilization is under discussion? The redemptive power of shared cultural expression, so important a part of older nationalisms, plays only a minor role for the new right today. The positive opposite to “Islamic culture” is not the culture of Goethe and Wagner but the culture of balanced budgets and safe, quiet streets. The civilization that supposedly clashes with “Islam” is not the civilization of Vienna operas and Parisian cafés but the civilization of law and order and of the freedoms of the hard-working middle class. It is also a civilization that to a considerable extent supersedes older national distinctions, and which complicates EU integrationists’ attempts to cast the idea of “Europe” as a tolerant, multicultural alternative to fragmented national identities. For all the new right’s hatred of the European Union, it nevertheless poses an idealized Europe of deservingly successful individuals beset by invaders from outside (this in spite of the fact that many asylum seekers are in fact Europeans, from countries like Kosovo and Ukraine). Longtime national enemies within Europe now find common ground in their fear of Muslims and refugees (feelings of solidarity among East Central European nationalists have perhaps never been so strong, as Hungarian, Slovak, Polish, and Czech leaders effusively praise one another for their hardline stances).

As traditional forms of labor and national solidarity crumble, the new right plays up the solidarity of the middle class against the excluded and the low. In contrast to the alleged subjugation of women and infidels by Muslims, the new right speaks of Western egalitarianism; but it strictly defines the reach of equality, excluding foreigners as well as the allegedly unproductive at home (Roma, the unemployed, effete intellectuals). In contrast to the strictures of sharia, the new right speaks of freedom; but the freedom that most interests it is the freedom of successful individuals to enjoy their hard-earned wealth. The new right shows relatively little sympathy for the classic fascist move of sacrificing individuality for the sake of affective unity with great leaders; rather, it promotes subservience to the successful, while it advocates rebellion against those who would take our wealth and give it to the undeserving poor.

Extremist Liberalism

For proper, right-thinking Europeans who behold recent developments with horror, it is comfortable to regard the rise of xenophobia as something fundamentally external to the established liberal democratic consensus. In the west and north, the rise of the new right can be blamed on residual fascist elements that were never quite expunged from the political scene. In the east, one can blame the populations’ limited experience with democracy and multiculturalism and their failure to internalize liberal values in the years since Communist Party rule.

In the west and north, the rise of the new right can be blamed on residual fascist elements that were never quite expunged from the political scene. In the east, one can blame the populations’ limited experience with democracy and multiculturalism and their failure to internalize liberal values in the years since Communist Party rule.

Nevertheless, the geography of rising xenophobia shows very little correlation with the absence of liberal values in political discourse. In spite of the spectacular press coverage given to the fear-mongering of the East Central European leaders, xenophobia appears to be only slightly weaker in the long-standing parliamentary democracies of the west and north, and this may soon change. The map of support for the new right can hardly be seen as a map of peoples holding onto to old, pre-democratic traditions (and I have never heard anyone blame the western countries’ xenophobia on their acceptance of such anachronistic national traditions as royalty, which has been abolished everywhere in the east). It is also striking that there is today almost no correlation been levels xenophobia and actual levels of immigration, which are minimal in most of post-Communist Europe, and would also be minimal in Hungary if the Hungarian state did not prevent so many migrants from freely passing through to their intended destinations farther west. Nor can we see xenophobia as a direct reaction to economic hardship and competition for jobs. On the contrary, the most obvious factor shared by countries with rising anti-immigrant sentiment is their relative prosperity in the years of the global economic crisis. Closer examination reveals the importance here of the word “relative.”

Xenophobia does not serve as the ideology of the most successful. It seems best suited for and is best received among those who are relatively well off but are most concerned about losing what they have. So we see it in border regions like northern Italy, where the Liga Nord feeds off anxieties over the region’s proximity to the country’s poorer south. France, though economically struggling itself, is in much better shape than neighboring Spain, and the National Front plays up fears over the country’s precarious well-being. In countries with long-generous welfare states and historically strong labor protections, the new right finds ample support in a native born working class uncertain of its future. And in post-Communist Central Europe, the new right is rising at a moment when the region has just emerged from the long depression that is euphemistically referred to as the “transition to a market economy” following 1989. The new right offers its ideas to the middle classes fearful of losing what they believe they worked so hard to earn and what prevailing economic indicators and theory tell them they have no need to share. And liberal values have played a crucial role in developing these ideas.

The connection between liberalism and xenophobia is made explicit by parties like the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom and Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity, which hold up free enterprise along with LGTB rights as marks of European superiority. And we might also remember that the Freedom Party of Austria and Fidesz in Hungary both began as liberal parties. But even when the new right attacks some liberal values, it seems to have internalized other liberal values all too well. Today liberal elites lament the current illiberal political turn, but they do not express much awareness of their own contribution to it. For years—and nowhere more passionately than in East Central Europe—liberal elites preached a gospel of personal responsibility; now they are surprised that people do not want to take responsibility for the plight of others. For years they spoke of the need for sacrifice and belt-tightening for the sake of future prosperity; and now, when national economies are finally growing, they are surprised that people want to hoard their newfound earnings.

Even while it fights against right-wing extremism, European liberalism has itself been growing extreme, as liberal, social democratic, and liberal-conservative (Christian democratic) parties give up their social commitments in favor of market fundamentalism and crushing austerity. A growing part of the population accepts the liberal justification of economic separation and inequality but sees no need to accept the liberal message of cultural equality and inclusion. Contemporary (neo-)liberalism has instilled in them a taste for economic masochism, and they extend this masochism to the cultural sphere. In July 2015, facing Greece, the established powers of Europe forced an ostensibly radical left to kneel before an intransigent center, and now the center risks being eclipsed by an authentically radical right. In July, the established powers taught Europe to punish the weak, and now they wonder that Europe learned the lesson so well.

At the height of negotiations over the Greek bailout, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico explained his support for a hard line against Greece by invoking Slovakia’s own experience with austerity: “The Greeks can’t even imagine what Slovakia had to go through.” He cut through the absurd economic reasoning repeated ad nauseum by German Finance Minister Schäuble, getting straight to the point: We have suffered, and we will make you suffer too. We have earned what we now have, and we will not give it up for you. Months later, Fico was at the forefront of opposition to the acceptance of refugees, and his rhetoric hardly needed to change. It should be noted that Robert Fico’s party, Smer—SD (“Direction—Social Democracy”) was elected on an anti-austerity program. What’s more: he has to a certain extent fulfilled this program—for the proper, hard-working citizens of Slovakia. At the same time he vocally advocates the most austere budget cuts for Greeks and the total exclusion of Muslim immigrants. He has also imposed a kind of forced labor for the unemployed, specifically targeting Romani communities; and his government has threatened to drastically cut funding for research in the social sciences and humanities science—on the premise that these are not self-sustaining, productive fields (and with the subtext that academics, like Roma, immigrants, and Greeks, are lazy). Here lies the crucial difference between the liberal establishment in Europe and the new right (of which Smer, despite its official adherence to social democracy, is a part): the liberals offer austerity for all, while the new right promises well-being for us but austerity for them. And the difference between the new right and the left—which, sadly, it has also become necessary to clarify, as formally left parties increasingly take up positions of the new right—is that the left stands for well-being for all.

A New Internationalism?

It is now hard to believe that 2015 began with unprecedented hope that Europe might find for itself a new, more humane way out of its political and economic crises. But as of the end of 2015 the successes of the left-of-center-left pale in comparison to the successes of the xenophobic right. Opposition to austerity lags behind—or is expressed in terms of—opposition to immigrants.

It is now hard to believe that 2015 began with unprecedented hope that Europe might find for itself a new, more humane way out of its political and economic crises.

The left stands or falls on the principle that the well-being and power of some is justified only by that of all others. As soon as it is asked whether “we” can afford to provide well-being to “them,” well-being is made a privilege, and the defense of privilege has always been the domain of the right. The right, in its various forms, poses the middle of society against the bottom and poses one bottom of society against another, while the top of society enjoys its established privileges unmolested. The left is the force that seeks progress and emancipation in common, connecting the struggles of the underprivileged to those of the slightly more privileged, turning erstwhile privileges into common goods.

In the wake of the postwar economic boom, large parts of the Western European left did just that, advocating for undocumented immigrants, for victims of ethnic and racial discrimination, and for the oppressed of the Global South. As this part of the left lost hope in the emancipatory potential of the relatively privileged, local working class, its approach was came to be widely understood as an abandonment of class politics in favor of a plurality of “new social movements” defined in terms of identity and recognition within civil society. Yet what could be more central to class politics than the principle of exclusion? What is class but the restrictions of means and privileges to one set of people and the exclusion of another? And with the intensified globalization of capitalism, how can we understand the working class without understanding the geographical and identitarian exclusions that determine who may work under what conditions where, and who enjoys the fruits of their labor?

We are not faced with a choice between migration politics and class politics. Class and migration politics are always already inseparable. The working class becomes increasingly migratory, even while its movement is legally restricted by a world that depends on its motion. And capital grows increasingly international, even while capitalists vie for power by playing to local animosities. Here lies the fundamental shortcoming of the liberal politics of civil rights within civil society: they are grounded in the principle of citizenship. Little of the wealth consumed in any given country is produced by citizens of that country. And the left should be concerned with those who are excluded from the privileges of citizenship.

This is a task for which the left finds itself today thoroughly unprepared. The electoral left, especially where it has met with some success, becomes dependent on voting citizens in a world where citizenship is a mechanism of exclusion, where the most exploited workers are deprived of rights to citizenship in the countries that live off their work. Electoralism is a chief obstacle to international solidarity—not because power politics corrupt honorable civic politics, but because the most honorable civic politics still pit citizens against non-citizens. But even left movements in the Global South itself have been largely limited by the extent of their national or regional borders, as they defend the oppressed at home, but not the workers who wander. And even the solidarity-oriented left, the left that defends immigrants and the Global South, finds itself weak in face of the challenge at hand. It has commendably fought for those most vulnerable, but it has not been able to unite their many campaigns of solidarity into a broad, global movement.

There once existed such a movement. It was known as “proletarian internationalism.” The internationalist left has been the only major historical movement that has attempted to give organizational form to a part of society whose oppression and hopes for emancipation transcend the nation-state. But the form that internationalism historically took—an international confederation of nationally-based organizations—has become outmoded, incapable of effectively representing the migrant working class today (as it was already incapable of surviving the first World War). International emancipation can probably be made plausible only by a new International that breaks free from national boundaries and emerges from the organization of workers where they actually are: dispersed and wandering across the earth. In this respect the migrants are now succeeding where the organized left has been failing: they are tearing down the walls of Fortress Europe.

By: nic. From MALMOE #72, 2015 http://www.malmoe.org/
By: nic. From MALMOE #72, 2015 http://www.malmoe.org/


Read the full version of this article in the Left East magazine

[1] Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, Ithaca: Cornell, 1948, p. 80.

Joseph Grim Feinberg

Joseph Grim Feinberg

Joseph Grim Feinberg is a cultural anthropologist and social theorist at the Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Sociology Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He has written on the concept of civil society, the politics of culture, and the future of the left.

View All
Joseph Grim Feinberg
Joseph Grim Feinberg is a cultural anthropologist and social theorist at the Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Sociology Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He has written on the concept of civil society, the politics of culture, and the future of the left.

Join the discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.