The victory of Brexit, Trump, the wide support for Le Pen, the implosion of socialist and social democratic parties in the Netherlands, France, and Iceland mirrored by the continuous decline of the SPD in three regional elections in Germany, raise some tricky issues.
Not only is social democracy at stake, but liberal democracy as well. Not so long ago, the permissive consensus on European integration was accompanied by one on liberal democracy. The one on Europe created space for Euroscepticism and all sorts of criticisms which could not be repressed by repeatedly swearing the undemocratic oath of ‘TINA’. The raison d’être of democracy – and, by the way, of Europe – is that there is a variety of views and not only one as in the Stalinist era. Liberal democracy – simplified to a maximum – is about competition between two or more different political visions represented by parties with opposite or at least substantially divergent views of society, the economy, the role of the state and market, culture, and social affairs.
Nowadays, a third movement plays a more and more prominent role, utilizing and at the same time undermining the democratic rules by promoting and boosting authoritarian personalities with authoritarian visions. Most of the time, these personalities are on the right wing of the political landscape, but in France such authoritarian characters can be found on both the far right and the far left.
The rise of the New Right
How did we get into that situation? First, a fading consensus, not only on Europe but also on the liberal form of representative democracy, is not a totally new trend. It is an incremental, not an underground movement with some disruptive events above the surface. It started half a century ago when some so-called New Philosophers – and in parallel a so-called New Right – saw the light of day and developed a hegemonic strategy based on the ideas of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Together, the New Philosophers and the New Right had much more impact than expected. Postmodernism, a movement which started in France in the 1960s by attacking structuralism and Marxism, cultivated the idea of relativity through all fields of society. Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and others were at the forefront of undermining the credibility of science and its goal of attaining objective knowledge. The attacks on science indirectly undermined the credibility of the Left, which is supposed to be built upon science and reason. The postmodernist movement attacked the age of Enlightenment, scientific revolution, human rights, and value-based policies. Shared values such as universality are regarded as essentially illusions and narratives, beliefs are equally true. Alain de Benoist, founder of the New Right (Nouvelle Droite) who was very active after May 68, can be considered as the spiritual father of Stephen Bannon, who advises President Trump.
The New Right and the Postmodernists together paved the way for all sorts of irrational, nihilistic and tribal cultures and identity-based policies, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum. Doubts about climate change or vaccines, belief in homeopathic and naturopathic solutions for serious health problems, chemtrails conspiracy theories are damaging confidence in empirical sciences and infiltrating broader circles of society. The journey from this relativist perspective to proclaiming ‘alternative facts’ is not far.
The first conclusion would be to engage in a new fight against neo-nihilistic and neo-relativistic tendencies in order to drain the ideological morass of reactionary ideas. Ill-conceived laissez-faire, politically correct over-tolerance and nonchalance paved the way for reaction, to a return to irrationalism and authoritarianism. A certain naive vision of the internet and social media as a public sphere in the service of more participation and democracy can be considered as the new credo. Many users simply choose to ignore the negative consequences and are unprepared for the cynical use by authoritarian forces. A tweet which gets global attention is a dangerous weapon, and an efficient defense still needs to be invented. The role played by global social media until now is opening a digital Pandora’s box. We have to take a step back and make up our minds to defend the philosophical assumptions and values of modernity, Enlightenment and science while discovering anew how to combat this digital tsunami.
Blaming the Other
Second, there are various reasons to be tempted to let authoritarian personalities deal with problems which seem to be too complicated to be addressed in elections or referendums. Authoritarian populist candidates show how to simplify complexity so that problems can be reduced to a simple linear relationship between cause and effect. If there are old industrial jobs fading away in the rust belts of the USA, Britain, France, Italy, Eastern Germany or elsewhere, it is presented as directly due to immigration and refugees and not as result of a de-industrialization strategy. This invented ‘correlation’ underpins isolationist solutions such as closing borders, building walls and keeping refugees away from what is regarded as ‘our cake’, i.e. social protection.
The struggle between different political concepts which is the foundation of liberal democracies is superposed by the trend to use the political battle to push for limiting democracy, which is presented as too bureaucratic, too dominated by compromises and endless discussions. The justification behind this trend is to simplify complex issues, to avoid long discussions and to facilitate recourse to immediate action along the line of ‘Promises made, promises kept’ – tactic to cement hegemony over one’s own clientele. The question is why the oversimplification and the denial of complex correlations gets more and more support. The political recourse to authoritarian solutions is based on the conviction that the ‘normal democratic procedures’, the ‘establishment’, and traditional political parties are unable to fight the causes of discontent effectively. One reason for this recourse lies in an increasing societal malaise in response to all kinds of unwanted growth: growth in inequalities, economic and social divergence, feelings of exclusion, of being left behind, of unfair distribution of wealth, of the impacts of technological progress, the acceleration of globalization and digitalization.
Another reason arises from a political vacuum. Confronted with complex issues, the dominant political response is inappropriate. The TINA idea suggests that there is no alternative to globalization, restructuring, digitalization etc., which are portrayed as intrinsically positive and even progressive. Only recently have the risks of these phenomena been weighed against the opportunities
The third assumption is that progressive and left parties struggle hard with populist protest, underestimating the anger of working and middle-class citizens who turn against the ‘establishment’, including – and arbitrarily mixing – political parties, state, trade unions, churches, NGOs, and Europe. Far-right parties are less squeamish about going to the places where these people are voicing their anger. Indeed, the left’s main challenge is to devise a hegemonic strategy against neoliberal backlashes and authoritarian tendencies. The dominant impression amongst populist voters that left parties and left intellectuals care nothing for their problems, must be countered by a clear message that they have a genuine interest in issues affecting working and middle-class people, and not only minorities. Third conclusion: in situations and times when the far-right response seems to be the only available form of protest, it goes without saying that more and more people will move in that direction.