They’re the only populist party that matters. Or at least did, until Italy’s far-right Lega (Nord) entered government in June, in a previously unimaginable coalition with the upstart Cinque Stelle (5 Star), well to the Lega’s left on most issues. Numerically speaking, Alternative für Deutschland polled far better in Germany’s 2017 elections but had no one similar to partner with.
Whether that remains the case in the future remains unlikely. Arguably the most ideologically influential party in Germany today, it will surprise no one if the AfD eventually find themselves in a governing coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and Christian Social Union (CSU) all of whom share their antipathy towards immigrants.
What’s to stop them? With each and every poll, the AfD’s strength seems to grow, even though there is no longer a refugee crisis and the economy continues to grow. What the governing centre-right/centre-left coalition can do to stop that remains to be seen. Voters are on to something else, and Italy, at least today, seems to be their preferred future.
Pundits are fond of referring to the zeitgeist – German for ‘Spirit of the Age’ – to explain what’s happening, as though there is some kind of organical ideological change the world is undergoing. Looking to Italy, they see a similar process to the interwar period, wherein Hitler followed Mussolini. History is repeating itself, clearly for the worst.
Paying lip service to anxieties about globalization, they recast it as objections to diversity, as though race, not capitalism, were the real issue. The end result is a synergy between right-wing ideology and news media, with the press taking its lead from the spin doctors, without thinking for itself, the exact opposite of the Lügenpresse (lying press) decried by Donald Trump and PEGIDA.
Just look at the criticisms of German news media for how it traffics in racist stereotypes and ideas, as but one example. From the expected pages of Bild to talk shows on public broadcasters, much discussion as of late has been devoted to how right-wing ideas evolve out of a context in which foreigners and Muslims get editorially othered in nominally neutral editorial frameworks.
It’s not so much a conspiracy as an unconscious division between us and them by media normally monopolised and produced by ethnic elites, whom, centre-left voters or not, ascribe to conservative ideas about Germany, that parties like Alternative fur Deutschland develop into explicitly and self-consciously racist politics. It’s a smart strategy. There’s a lot to work with.
That’s not so much the Zeitgeist talking as it is better cultural intelligence. If you are the least bit aware of what people are thinking, you try and organise their ideas ideologically and translate them into concrete politics. That’s what today’s populist parties are doing better than their leftwing counterparts, at least in countries like Germany and Italy. The left isn’t so much.
One of the few American philosophers to really understand this mood, if one were to call it that, is Wendy Brown. A professor of political science at UC Berkeley, Brown is reknown for her work theoretical engagement with contemporary politics, with neoliberalism and nationalism being her topics du jour.
Captured in peak form, Souciant recorded Brown speaking at the Stoppt Den Hass/Stop Die AfD (Stop the Hate/Stop the AfD) rally, in Berlin, on 27 May. If the fightback against populism has its Herbert Marcuse or Antonio Negri-equivalent, Wendy Brown is an ideal and welcome figure. Three cheers to the demonstration organisers that invited her to speak.
Photograph and video courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.