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17 May, 2018  ▪  Philippe de Lara

Europe in weightlessness

Can the western democracy survive the populist offensive?

Since the collapse of communism and the enlargements of the EU at the turn of the century, many political alerts have been disturbing the stability and self-confidence of liberal democracies, specially of “European construction”: the growth of anti-system parties in all countries, the rejection in 2005 of a new European treaty by two founding nations of the EU, France and the Netherlands, the perception of the great recession of 2008 as a betrayal of the promises of globalization, the unexpected coming to power of eurosceptics and anti-liberal forces in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Czechia and Romania. Yet, all this could not alter the peace of mind of elites or rather a strange mood of confident resignation in the “politics of inevitability”, as Timothy Snyder rightly coined it. We still lived in the boring and peaceful world of “the end of history”. 9/11 was a huge shock and triggered wars that are still ongoing today, but in the aftermath Islamic terrorism did not alter the business-as-usual mood in western countries, despite twelve deadly attacks between 2004 and 2014 causing about 215 deaths (and more than 170,000 people killed by Islamic terrorism in the world in the same period. Africa’s share is overwhelming, followed by Afghanistan and Iraq).

2015 was a turning point: in that year alone, Islamic terror killed 414 people in western countries, 155 of them in France. More than one million refugees arrived in Europe (216,000 in 2014), triggering panic and anger across the EU. The same year, “populist” parties had major success in many elections: in Denmark, the People’s Party won 21.1%, while the Liberal Party, once dominant fell to 19.5%; in Spain the “indignants” of Podemos, a party born just two years ago, won 20.7%; in Poland, PiS won presidential and parliamentary elections with 37.6% and has ruled Poland since then; in United Kingdom, the breakthrough of UKIP at 12.6% in 2015 preceded Brexit next year. The year before in Hungary, the fascist Jobbik had jumped from 16.6% in 2010 to 20.2%. At the European elections, “national-populists” parties were on top in France, United Kingdom and Denmark and gather at least 140 seats (of 751) in the European Parliament. In the meantime, Vladimir Putin consolidates his power. His 5th (de facto 6th) re-election in 2018 was obtained by much less fraud than in 2012. It was time to take populism and authoritarianism seriously. The politics of inevitability turned out to be no longer inevitable.

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The magnitude of the challenge to democracy is obvious. Understanding it is not so obvious, and that’s our problem. The forces labelled as “populist” are heterogeneous. The concept of populism is not fully adequate (no more than conservatism). It overestimates the unity of protest against liberal values and underestimates its disruptive power. “Nationalism” is even worse because 1) it confuses aggressive and xenophobic nationalism with patriotic pride and care for national culture and identity (Ukraine pays a heavy toll for this confusion), 2) it is blind to non-nationalist mobilizations: extreme right groups are more often than not hostile or indifferent to nation. They are fighters of “Christian civilization” or of white supremacy. Homophobia and racism have no nationality (Putin’s imperialism neither, so these groups are welcomed in Moscow, making the national-populists uneasy). Such groups are very tiny, but this does not impair their capacity to violence. Inside or outside of electoral competition, this nebulous web of organizations destabilizes the political field by introducing a new political divide (or divides), unamenable to the traditional right-left division: winners and losers of globalization, pro-Europeans and eurosceptics, partisans of protective closure and of openness. They permeate moderate parties: for instance, with its new leader Laurent Wauquiez, Les Républicains in France is no longer the party of business and mild conservatism, but the protector of modest households, victims of insecurity and lower incomes. There is more -- these forces do not tend to reshape the political debate and political alternatives. They rather tend to shift from one issue to another (immigration today, multiculturalism against identity tomorrow, tax rebellion later, etc.) and a growing part of them is inclined to violent politics, both at the far right and the far left: openness to otherness and concern for the planet can be as violent as racism.In France, Emmanuel Macron’s victory in 2017 appeared rightly as a victory against populism, including in its distinguished guise of Francois Fillon, once a frontrunner candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, but also an overtly pro-Russian politician ready to break the European solidarity on sanctions and to recognize the annexation of Crimea. But France was an exception. In Austria (2017), in Germany (2017), in Italy (2018), in Netherlands (2017), at the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom (2016), not to mention Trump’s election in the United States, populists won or progressed enough to become central players in the “system” they denounced from the outside a few years ago. Mostly right extremists or conservatives, populists have also a no less successful left brand: in Spain, Podemos increased in 2016 its previous score to 21.2%; in Germany, Die Linke did not match the triumph of AfD (which went from 4.7% in 2013 to 12.6% now) but maintained its share at 9.2% and won 5 more seats; in France, La France Insoumise (LFI) reached 11.03% and 17 seats in the legislative election following Macron’s election (it had none in the previous Assembly); in Italy, Five Stars increased their score to 32.7%, slightly beating the so-called Center-Right coalition (37%), actually dominated by the far-right Lega Nord (47% of the 265 seats of the coalition). In 2019, parliamentary elections will be held in eight EU countries and at the European Parliament. Results are in most cases highly unpredictable.

Populist parties are often on the verge of split or explosion: the French National Front may split on Europe or family values issues, Geert Wilders’ authority is challenged within his party and outside by the eurosceptic Forum for Democracy!, Five Stars live in permanent psychodrama, and one remembers the seemingly fatal crisis of FPÖ in Austria after the sexual scandal and the untimely death of its founding leader Jӧrg Haider in 2008. But with all the ingredients of fleeting movements, these parties continue to establish themselves in the political landscape. 

Last but not least, the concept of populism confines the issue to politics. Meanwhile, disruptive votes and allegiances go along with wider social phenomena: 1) disposition to verbal and physical violence on any issue, serious or futile: local administration, noisy neighbours, academic controversies, as well as immigration or abortion. 2) Conspiracy theories have a growing influence. A recent poll in France (IFOP, 2017) reveals that 35% of respondents believe that the American government took part in the 9/11 attacks, including 47% among young people (18-34), 44% among people unemployed and attending school. 22% suspect or are sure that Islamist attacks in Paris in January 2015 (20 people killed, including satirical journalists, policemen, customers of a Kosher grocery store) were in fact planned or manipulated by the French secret service. This last figure jumps to 34% in the group of respondents aged 18-24. 55% of respondents believe that the Department of Health conspires with pharmaceutical companies to hide the harmfulness of vaccines from the public.

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All this is worrying and bewildering. Yet, there is at least one constant and universal feature of all disruptive parties: they are supported by Russia and supporting Russia. This may be a good starting point to grasp the uncatchable. Russia exports not only lobbying, fake news, cyber-attacks and corruption of politicians and of elections (plus outright war in Ukraine). It exports meaning: however irrational, inconsistent, eaten up by revenge, and unsuccessful domestically and globally, even ridiculous (see Vladimir Putin’s ambiguous disgust for homosexuality: as Snyder puts it, Putin is “offering masculinity as an argument against democracy”), Putin makes sense of the crisis of democracies. Russia does not have to be an attractive model to provide an intelligible framework for a situation felt as meaningless by many western citizen.

Timothy Snyder new book The Road to Unfreedom. Russia, Europe, America explains how this works: “The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. […] Now, what has already happened in Russia is what might happen in America and Europe: the stabilization of massive inequality, the displacement of policy by propaganda, the shift from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity. […] As social mobility halts, inevitability gives way to eternity, and democracy gives way to oligarchy. An oligarch spinning a tale of an innocent past, perhaps with the help of fascist ideas, offers fake protection to people with real pain. Faith that technology serves freedom opens the way to his spectacle. The oligarch crosses into real politics from a world of fiction and governs by invoking myth and manufacturing crisis.” Putin’s prospect is as absurd as it is simple, yet efficient: after reducing “Russian statehood to his oligarchical clan and its moment, the only way to head off a vision of future collapse was to describe democracy as an immediate and permanent threat. […] In 2013, Russia began to seduce or bully its European neighbours into abandoning their own institutions and histories. If Russia could not become the West, let the West become Russia.” This making sense of our predicament is tremendously attractive because it fills a gap, but also because, despite its unique delirium, we resemble Russia in two features: 1) systemic corruption spreads in all Western countries, fed by tax cheating, grey economy mixing legitimate and criminal money, leading to a paradoxical blend of daily acceptance and deep distrust towards elites. For that matter, Ukraine’s originality is to combines post-soviet kleptocracy with western-like corruption and clumsy efforts to get rid of both. 2) Russia’s public sphere is pervaded by lies, but unlike the old-style soviet lie, it is not based on political propaganda but on credulity and bullshit. People are conditioned to believe anything, but what they believe does not matter. Likewise, in all democratic countries, conspiracy theories on all kinds of subjects are flourishing, ultimately fueled by the belief that all our misfortunes are caused by a single global conspiracy, globalization (or capitalism, or Jews, or Freemasons, or whatever). Credulity goes along with distrust towards all elites, politicians but also doctors, professors, etc.

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This situation is not unlike that in the post-war Europe: expectation of justice and progress born during the war against barbarianism confronted with attempts of reconstruction and delusions of ordinary life and ordinary governments, succumbed to the sirens of communism. This happened not only in France and Italy where Communist Parties had strong influence. In all democratic countries, a lot of people were seduced, impressed by soviet communism, or at least convinced by its irresistible efficiency. Europe overcame this challenge.

This is a new one (although it also stems partly from the soviet legacy). International reactions to the Skripal case and the April chemical bombings in Syria are perhaps signs of leaving this state of weightlessness. Maybe international retaliations against Assad and his Russian mentor will follow, maybe European countries will not just expel diplomats but pass Magnitsky Acts, maybe they will stop Nord Stream 2, thoroughly investigate hostile foreign activities on their soil. Freedom is a supreme value of European civilization, but to cherish a value is not enough to recognize that we neglected to cultivate it and that it is in danger.

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