After 1989, all the talk was of the “end of history” in democracy and the market economy and today we are experiencing the emergence of a new phenomenon in the form of an authoritarian/populist leadership – from Putin via Erdogan to Donald Trump. Clearly, a new “authoritarian international” is increasingly succeeding in defining political discourse. Was your exact contemporary Ralf Dahrendorf right in forecasting an authoritarian 21st century? Can one, indeed must one speak of an epochal change?
After the transformation of 1989-90 when Fukuyama seized on the slogan of “post-history” as coined originally within a ferocious kind of conservativism, his reinterpretation expressed the short-sighted triumphalism of western elites who adhered to a liberal belief in the pre-established harmony of market economy and democracy. Both of these elements inform the dynamic of social modernisation but are linked to functional imperatives that repeatedly clash. The trade-off between capitalistic growth and the populace’s share – only half-heartedly accepted as socially just – in the growth of highly productive economies could only be brought about by a democratic state deserving of this name. Such an equilibrium, which warrants the name of “capitalist democracy”, was, however, within an historical perspective, the exception rather than the rule. That alone made the idea of a global consolidation of the “American dream” an illusion.
The new global disorder, the helplessness of the USA and Europe with regard to growing international conflicts, is profoundly unsettling and the humanitarian catastrophes in Syria or South Sudan unnerve us as well as Islamist acts of terror. Nevertheless, I cannot recognise in the constellation you indicate a uniform tendency towards a new authoritarianism but, rather, a variety of structural causes and many coincidences. What binds them together is the keyboard of nationalism and that has begun to be played meanwhile in the West. Even before Putin and Erdogan, Russia and Turkey were no “unblemished democracies.” If the West had pursued a somewhat cleverer policy, one might have set the course of relations with both countries differently – and liberal forces in their populaces might have been strengthened.
Aren’t we over-estimating the West’s capabilities retrospectively here?
Of course, given the sheer variety of its divergent interests, it would not have been easy for “the West” to have chosen the right moment to deal rationally with the geo-political aspirations of a relegated Russian superpower or with the European expectations of a tetchy Turkish government. The case of the egomaniac Trump, highly significant for the West all told, is of a different order. With his disastrous election campaign, he is bringing to a head a process of polarisation that the Republicans have been running with cold calculation since the 1990s and are escalating so unscrupulously that the “Grand Old Party”, the party of Abraham Lincoln, don’t forget, has utterly lost control of this movement. This mobilisation of resentment is giving vent to the social dislocations of a superpower in political and economic decline.
What I do see, therefore, as problematic is not the model of an authoritarian International that you hypothesise but the shattering of political stability in our western countries as a whole. In any judgment of the retreat of the USA from its role as the global power ever ready to intervene to restore order, one has to keep one’s eyes on the structural background – one affecting Europe in similar manner.
The economic globalisation that Washington introduced in the 1970s with its neoliberal agenda has brought in its wake, measured globally against China and the other emergent BRIC countries, a relative decline of the West. Our societies must work through domestically the awareness of this global decline together with the technology-induced, explosive growth in the complexity of everyday living. Nationalistic reactions are gaining ground in those social milieus that have either never or inadequately benefited from the prosperity gains of the big economies because the ever-promised “trickle-down effect” failed to materialise over the decades.
Even if there is no unequivocal tendency towards a new authoritarianism, we are obviously going through a huge shift to the Right, indeed a Right-wing revolt. And the pro-Brexit campaign was just the most prominent example of this trend in Europe. You yourself, as you recently put it, “did not reckon with a victory for populism over capitalism in its country of origin.” Every sensible observer cannot but have been struck by the obvious irrational nature not just of the outcome of this vote but of the campaign itself. One thing is clear: Europe is also increasingly prey to a seductive populism, from Orban and Kaczynski to Le Pen and AfD. Does this mean we are going through a period of making irrational politics the norm in the West? Some parts of the Left are already making the case for reacting to right-wing populism with a left-wing version of the same.
Before reacting purely tactically, the puzzle has to be solved as to how it came about that right-wing populism stole the Left’s own themes. The last G-20 summit delivered an instructive piece of theatre in this regard. One read of the assembled heads of government’s alarm at the “danger from the Right” that might lead nation states to close their doors, raise the drawbridge high and lay waste to globalised markets. This mood embraces the flabbergasting change in social and economic policy that one of the participants, Theresa May, announced at the latest Conservative party conference and that caused waves of anger as expected in the pro-business media. Obviously, the British prime minister had thoroughly studied the social reasons for Brexit; in any case, she is trying to take the wind out of the sails of right-wing populism by reversing the previous party line and setting store by an interventionist “strong state” in order to combat the marginalisation of the “left behind” parts of the population and the increasing divisions within society. Given this ironic reversal of the political agenda, the Left in Europe must ask itself why right-wing populism is succeeding in winning over the oppressed and disadvantaged for the false path of national isolation.
Socially acceptable globalisation through supranational co-operation
What should a left-wing response to the right-wing challenge look like?
The question is why left-wing parties do not go on the offensive against social inequality by embarking upon a co-ordinated and cross-border taming of unregulated markets. As a sensible alternative – as much to the status quo of feral financial capitalism as to the agenda for a “völkisch” or left-nationalist retreat into the supposed sovereignty of long-since hollowed-out nation states – I would suggest there is only a supranational form of co-operation that pursues the goal of shaping a socially acceptable political reconfiguration of economic globalisation. International treaty regimes are insufficient here; for, putting aside completely their dubious democratic legitimacy, political decisions over questions of redistribution can only be carried out within a strict institutional framework. That leaves only the stony path to an institutional deepening and embedding of democratically legitimised co-operation across national borders. The European Union was once such a project – and a Political Union of the Eurozone could still be one. But the hurdles within the domestic decision-making process are rather high for that.
Since Clinton, Blair and Schröder social democrats have swung over to the prevailing neoliberal line in economic policies because that was or seemed to be promising in the political sense: in the “battle for the middle ground” these political parties thought they could win majorities only by adopting the neoliberal course of action. This meant taking on board toleration of long-standing and growing social inequalities. Meantime, this price – the economic and socio-cultural “hanging out to dry” of ever-greater parts of the populace – has clearly risen so high that the reaction to it has gone over to the right. And where else? If there is no credible and pro-active perspective, then protest simply retreats into expressivist, irrational forms.
Even worse than the right-wing populists would appear to be the “contagion risks” among the established parties – and indeed, throughout Europe. Under pressure from the Right, the new prime minister in Great Britain has undertaken a hard-line policy of deterring or even expelling foreign workers and migrants; in Austria the social democratic head of government wants to restrict the right to asylum by emergency decree – and in France Francois Hollande has been governing for nearly a year already in a state of emergency, to the joy of the Front National. Is Europe even alert to this right-wing revolt or are republican achievements being irreversibly eroded?
In my estimate, domestic politicians mishandled right-wing populism from the start. The mistake of the established parties lies in acknowledging the battlefront that right-wing populism is defining: “We” up against the system. Here it matters hardly a jot whether this mistake takes the form of an assimilation to or a confrontation with “right-wing”. Take either the strident would-be French president Nicolas Sarkozy who is outbidding Marine Le Pen with his demands, or the example of the sober-minded German justice minister Heiko Maas who forcefully takes on Alexander Gauland in debate – they both make the opponent stronger. Both take him/her seriously and raise his/her profile. A year on we here in Germany all know the studiously ironic grin of Frauke Petry (AfD leader) and the demeanour of the rest of the leadership of her ghastly gang. It’s only by ignoring their interventions that one can cut the ground from under the feet of the right-wing populists.
But this requires being willing to open up a completely different front in domestic politics and doing so by making the above-mentioned problem the key point at issue: How do we regain the political initiative vis-à-vis the destructive forces of unbridled capitalist globalisation? Instead, the political scene is predominantly grey on grey, where, for example, the left-wing pro-globalisation agenda of giving a political shape to a global society growing together economically and digitally can no longer be distinguished from the neoliberal agenda of political abdication to the blackmailing power of the banks and of the unregulated markets.
One would therefore have to make contrasting political programmes recognisable again, including the contrast between the – in a political and cultural sense – “liberal” open-mindedness of the left, and the nativist fug of right-wing critiques of an unfettered economic globalization. In a word: political polarisation should be re-crystallised between the established parties on substantive conflicts. Parties that grant right-wing populists attention rather than contempt should not expect civil society to disdain right-wing phrases and violence. Therefore, I regard as the greater danger a very different polarisation towards which the hard-core opposition within the CDU is moving when it casts a leery eye on the post-Merkel period. In Alexander Gauland it recognises anew the pivotal figure of the Dregger wing of the old Hesse CDU, or flesh of its own flesh, and toys with the idea of winning back lost voters by way of a coalition with the AfD.
Breeding ground for a new fascism
Even verbally, a lot seems to be topsy-turvy: Politicians are more and more often denounced as “enemies of the people” and openly abused. Alexander Gauland calls Angela Merkel a “dictatorial chancellor”. On the same lines goes the gradual rehabilitation of the “Wörterbuch des Unmenschen” (dictionary of Nazi jargon): Frauke Petry wants to bring the concept of “völkisch” back into everyday speech, Björn Höcke talks of “entartete Politik” (”degenerate politics”) and, thereupon, a Saxon CDU woman MP falls into classic Nazi-speak of “Umvolkung” (de-Germanisation) – and all of this without further consequences.
The only lesson democratic parties should draw as regards handling people who are keen on such terms is: they should stop pussyfooting around with these “concerned citizens” and dismiss them curtly for what they are – the breeding ground for a new fascism. Instead of which, we witness again and again the comic ritual, well-practised in the old (pre-1990) federal republic, of a compulsory balancing-act: Every time when talk of “right-wing extremism” is unavoidable, politicians feel obliged to point hastily to a corresponding “left-wing extremism”, as if they had to escape an embarrassment.
How do you explain the susceptibility to the AfD’s right-wing populism in eastern Germany and the sheer scale of Far Right offences there?
One should, of course, be under no illusions about the strong electoral success of the AfD also in the Western parts of Germany, as shown by the results of the last election in Baden-Württemberg – even if the aggressive affects of Mr Meuthen (of AfD) against the liberal-left legacy of the ’68 generation leave one to suppose not the mentality of a right-wing extremist but a disposition long pertaining in that old federal republic. In the west the right-wing prejudices of AfD voters seem to be filtered in the main through a conservative milieu that had no opportunity to develop in the former GDR. On the west’s account also stand those right-wing activists who, straight after the 1990 turnaround, went over from the old federal republic to the east in their droves and brought with them the required organisational capabilities. However, judging by the well-known statistical data, an “unfiltered” vulnerability to swirling authoritarian prejudices and to the “old continuities” is definitively greater in eastern Germany. Insofar as this potential emerges from former non-voters, it could remain more or less inconspicuous until the catalyst of our recent refugee policy: Up until then, these voters had either been attracted by the politically biased perception and national goodwill of the Eastern CDU or in great part captured by the party of the “Left”. Up to a point that may have served a good purpose. But it is better for a democratic body politic when questionable political mind sets are not swept under the carpet long-term.
On the other hand, the west, i.e. the former government of West Germany, that defined the mode of reunification and reconstruction at the time and that now bears political responsibility for the consequences, might well end up holding the baby in view of how history judges these facts. Whereas the populace of the former West Germany had enjoyed the opportunity under good economic conditions to gradually free itself in decades-long public discussions from the legacy of the Nazi period, from contaminated mind sets and elites continuing in office, the population of the former GDR had no opportunity after 1990 to be able to commit their own mistakes and be forced to learn from facing the Nazi past.
When it comes to federal politics the AfD has pushed the Union (CDU/CSU) above all into strategic turmoil. Recently, therefore, politicians from the CDU and CSU drew up a formal “Aufruf” (mission statement) for a “Leitkultur“, the political slogan for preserving the inherited cultural framework, with the intention of stopping “patriotism from being handed over to the wrong people.” You read there: “Germany has a right to stipulate what should be self-evident.” “Rootedness in a fondly embraced homeland and daily experience of patriotism” is to be promoted. In the (old) federal republic, in the wake of growing acceptance of democracy, the Basic Law acted more and more as the core culture and its recognition became the standard for successful integration. Nowadays, are we experiencing the transition of this constitutional-patriotic core culture into a new mainstream German culture made up of habit and custom, like a duty to shake hands on greeting somebody?
We obviously assumed over-hastily that Merkel’s CDU had left the backwoods debate of the 1990s behind it. Refugee policy has brought to the surface an internal opposition that combines the descendants of the national-conservative wing of the old federal CDU/CSU with the converts of the East-CDU. Their “Aufruf” marks the breakpoint at which the CDU would fall apart as a party if forced to decide between two policy options: to organize the integration of refugees either according to constitutional standards or according to the ideas of the national majority culture. The democratic constitution of a pluralistic society provides cultural rights for minorities so that these gain the possibility of continuing their own cultural way of life within the limits of the law of the land. Therefore, a constitutional integration-policy is incompatible with the legal obligation upon immigrants of a different origin to subject their life-style to an all-inclusive majority culture. Rather, it demands the differentiation between a majority culture rooted in the country and a political culture embracing all citizens equally.
This political culture is, however, still shaped by how citizens and their interpretation of constitutional principles draw upon the historical contexts of the country. Civil society must expect of the immigrant citizens – without being able to enforce it legally – that they grow into this political culture. Here the report that Navid Kermani, a German citizen of Iranian origin, published in Der Spiegel of his visit to the former concentration camp at Auschwitz is a moving and illuminating example: in the language-mix of visitors from many countries he opted to join the silent group of the Germans, hence the descendants of the perpetrator generation. It was at any rate not the German language of the group that moved him to do so.
Given that political culture will not stand still within a living democratic culture of debate, the newly arrived citizens on the other hand enjoy as much as the long-established ones the right to bring their own voice to bear in the process of developing and changing this common political culture. The defining power of these voices is best exemplified for us by the successful writers, film-directors, actors, journalists and scientists from the families of former Turkish “guest workers”. Attempts at legally conserving a national core culture are not only unconstitutional but unrealistic.
The Chancellor’s career as a political poster child
In your latest interview, in Die Zeit of 7 July, you, as a “long-time engaged newspaper reader” criticise a “certain complicity of the Press” without which “Merkel’s blanket policy of dulling everybody to sleep” would have been unable to spread across the land. Clearly, since Merkel’s refugee policy, we’re experiencing a new polarisation. Do you see any chance in this of finally thinking in political alternatives?
Given the fixation on the AfD I rather fear a further levelling of the differences between the other parties. When I spoke about a policy of lulling everyone to sleep I was talking about Europe. Regarding the future of the European Union, nothing has changed meanwhile since Brexit. You read, for example, virtually nothing on the renewed escalation of the conflict between finance minister Schäuble and the IMF that has quit the aid programme for Greece. Without an initiative to change the crippling policy of spending cuts, the readiness inside Europe for co-operation will equally fail to develop in other policy areas.
Wolfgang Schäuble, after Brexit, in an interview with Die Welt, has publicly recanted on his forward-looking proposal for a pro-active core Europe that he and Karl Lamers put together at the start of the 1990s. Angela Merkel whom one has got to know as a pleasantly rational politician in favour of expert pragmatism but also as a short-termist, power-driven opportunist, surprised me with her constructive refugee policy. Her latest trip to Africa shows that she does have the capacity and readiness to act in a strategic and far-reaching manner. But what does it mean when, on the other hand, and this has already been true since 2010, she pursues a policy towards Europe from the narrow perspective of national economic selfishness. Indeed, she seems to think only in terms of national interests in that very policy area where it falls on our government to provide the impulse for building and further developing the EU. Merkel’s short-sighted austerity policy, sticking rigidly to the status quo, has prevented the necessary forward steps and hugely deepened the splits within Europe.
It’s you who has long demanded a trans-nationalisation of democracy, that is strengthening the EU, to compensate for the loss of control within nation states in a highly interdependent global society. Yet, clearly, the longing for a retreat into the cocoon of the nation state is growing more and more. Given the current state of the EU and its institutions do you see even the remotest realistic chance of fighting back against this renationalisation?
The negotiations over Brexit will bring this issue back onto the agenda either way. In fact, I still endorse the internal differentiation between a Political Euro-Union working ever closer together (catchword: Core Europe) and a periphery of hesitant member-states which can join the core at any time. So many political reasons and economic facts speak for this design that I think politicians would be better employed believing in people’s capacity to learn than justifying their abandonment of politically shaping the future with a fatalistic referral to unalterable systemic forces. Angela Merkel’s career offers, with the withdrawal from nuclear energy and her path-breaking refugee policy, two remarkable counter-examples to the thesis of a lack of room for political manoeuvre.
This interview was conducted by and first published in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik. Translation by David Gow.