The new far right and the so-called populist moment

3 September, 2020 · News> Europe> European Union

This past Saturday, the denialist demonstration at the gates of the Reichstag gave the German media the creeps. During the previous week, politicians debated whether they should change the laws in order to ban it, while the intelligence and counterinsurgency services warned that the movement had already merged with the far right. Der Spiegel wrote:

What will remain after this day are the photographs of up to 400 people who suddenly stand on the steps of the Reichstag building, despite all the barriers, with flags in their hands, many with the colors of the German Reich, black, white and red.

Today, however, the appearance of the Populism Barometer 2020, a massive survey conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation, has not only been celebrated in all media, but celebrated as the end of an era: that of the populist rise.


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The survey measures the affinity of ten thousand respondents to a battery of statements indicating certain forms of discontent with the political system. For example: parties only want people’ votes, they are not interested in their points of view or What is called compromise in politics is in reality nothing more than a betrayal of one’s own ideas.

This year’s result shows a turnaround from 2018: at that time 32.8% of the voters shared populist values and opinions, today 20.9%. From a third to a fifth. What is even more reassuring for the press and the German political apparatus, the openly opposed to populism went from 31.4 to 47.1%.

The German peculiarity

Merkel is displayed in a convenience store in Berlin to convey a sense of “normalcy” in the midst of the epidemic.

The main conclusion of the study is that the German political apparatus re-emerges strengthened from the lockdowns. The Greens and the members of the Grand Coalition would be strengthened again by votes taken from the AfD. The Social Democrats would be reborn from the electoral ashes even with a candidate as committed to Merkel as her finance minister, Olaf Scholz. The shift would be so profound that, according to the survey’s authors, the major parties should no longer have incentives to incorporate the AfD’s flagship issues such as immigration restrictions. The authors attribute this to the trust generated by Merkel and her ministers during the health crisis. This change in public opinion would therefore be the last great success of the Chancellor, who, after many setbacks, would have saved the German political apparatus from the crisis of disaffection to which it seemed to be heading.

Could the revolt of the German petty bourgeoisie have been deflated in such a short time? Yes. The German petty bourgeoisie has been through a real scare during the first wave of the pandemic. Fear of illness but above all of bankruptcy or dismissal: consumption dropped to 1990 levels and exports went from decline to collapse. But the government, with Merkel and Scholz at its head, already in March increased the budget by 50%, captured debt massively and made the small industrialist, shopkeeper or bureaucrat feel that he was going to be protected. The forcefulness and firm hand of the Chancellor brought back into the fold the majority of the discontented petty bourgeoisie.

Not the whole of Gaul

Denialist demonstration in Madrid last August.

The authors of the report warn, however, that what is left of the discontent threatens to become more radical than before. The social basis of AfD would then come into play first. The 56% of those who would continue to vote for this party would clearly be on the far right and would be difficult to redirect in the future. Among other things, because this ultra-right wing would already be completely deluded, fed by conspiracy theories. In other words, the German political system is permanently scarred by the past crisis.

The bannonism that we saw emerge strongly this summer throughout Europe would therefore have taken over a good part of the German far right. Even today, the BBC was surprised at how such crude delusions, typical of marginal groups in the US, as QAnon, were absorbing and merging with pandemic denialism in the US and Britain, while finding allies in Hispanoamerica. Undoubtedly, there are cultural elements in the forms. But there is a deeper background: the petty bourgeois feel the system as a conspiracy against their individual person and their interests. Hindered by the individualistic nature of his interests for collective action, he discovers in conspiracy theories a story that victimizes him and exalts him as a social victim; he turns his eternal suspicion into citizen resistance; he frees the expression of his phobias and fears under a very vaguely anti-capitalist revolutionarist spirit; and wraps him in a mystique allowing him to overcome both its heterogeneity… and the difference of interests with his peers and employers.

For this reason, once the phase of general revolt of the petty bourgeoisie has subsided, the far right can only become radicalized, that is, let itself be led by more or less mystical and conspiratorial drifts. At least as long as the crisis does not rekindle the embers of general discontent by making a substantial part of the petty bourgeoisie stop seeing in the systemic parties the security and protection it craves.

What about Spain?

Vox meeting in Vistalegre, Madrid, in 2018, when Catalan independentism began providing Vox with some traction among the Spanish nationalist petty bourgeoisie

In Spain the PP, after dismissing Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, seems to have opted for the Feijóo way. The Galician president, who will rule with an absolute majority in a parliament without Vox, is trying to play Merkel-style: ignore the far right, show strength, differentiate himself from the socialists and, above all, show that he knows how to control the pandemic. Today: he boasted about the 100% negative PCR results in Lugo and the generalization of low-cost saliva tests.

Being in the opposition, the national-level PP does not have the same options as Feijóo or Merkel. But as long as the independentist revolt of the Catalan petty bourgeoisie is not revived, there is a chance that the strategy will turn out well enough for Vox to push itself into a corner. On the other hand, Sánchez, who is not thinking of a new electoral advance, seems to have stopped playing ball with Abascal (Vox’s president). Today everything tends to return Vox’s bases back to the PP and condemns the ultra party to look for bases and militants in more eccentric fishing grounds. And in fact, from the moment that the PP announced that it would not support the motion of censure of Vox, the formation has lost its mooring. The last remark is especially symbolic: it has called its foundation Disenso (“Dissent”), the same name as the far-right university groups of the nineties. Vox’s drift towards derangement seems to be going that way rather than towards convergence with anti-mask and anti-pandemic denialism.

What is certain is that with the acceleration of the crisis the petty bourgeoisie will not become enlightened nor will it cease to be reactionary because of some unknown miracle. The only question is how it is going to express this reaction: by closing ranks around the systemic parties in search of security or by taking up again the path of a revolt that, in any of its flavors, is condemned to impotence. Vox is only one of the forms -and not even the largest one- of this second way. The specifically right-wing form of the most rancid Spanish nationalism, the ultra-nationalist drift of Aznarism. More similar in their crude anti-communism and class origins to UKIP brexiter hooligans than to the followers of Le Pen, they are nonetheless pro-EU believers who speak of the dictates of Brussels with the devotion of a Lourdes shepherd. It is this obedience that places them in a very different position from the rest of the European far-right. That is why they do not frighten the Spanish bourgeoisie. Unlike the independentist movement or Podemos -of which they continue to fear without much foundation a drift towards Spexit– they are mainly considered to be a hindrance, not a danger. The bourgeoisie will not push them, they will turn their backs on them.

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