When Bertolt Brecht parodied the Nazis by comparing them to US gangsters organising violent crime[i], he stressed the potential for resistance to bring them down. Their victory in the 1930s was not inevitable: A movement united against fascism could have swept them off the streets and out of power. This only underlines the importance of understanding the rise of contemporary racism and authoritarian leaders. The style of government characterised as ruling through division has become increasingly common in the twenty first century in Europe and America, as explained by the discourse analysis of Ruth Wodak:
Currently, we observe a normalization of nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and anti-semitic rhetoric, which primarily works with ‘fear’: fear of change, of globalization, of loss of welfare, of climate change, of changing gender roles; in principle, almost everything can be constructed as a threat to ‘Us’, an imagined homogenous people inside a well-protected territory.’[ii]
Therefore, a symbiosis exists between manufacturing fear of the ‘other’ and labelling deviance. Looking at this through the lens of politics, Stuart Hall was right to say ‘all political action which is not expressed via the electoral process…is, by definition, deviant with respect to politics.’ He concludes:
Operationally, the maintenance of boundaries between ‘politics’ and ‘non-politics’ and the casting of certain ‘political’ acts into the ‘non-political’ domain, are themselves political acts, and reflect the structure of power and interest. These acts of labelling in the political domain, far from being self-evident, or a law of the natural world, constitute a form of continuing political ‘work’ on the part of the élites of power; they are, indeed, often the opening salvo in the whole process of political control.[iii]
Of course, often these controlling state institutions are acting in tune with governments. For example, in recent years there has been an increasing emphasis in Britain and the US in combatting so-called radicalisation through surveillance, labelling and repression. But even though governments believe they have a democratic mandate so to do, through their pledge to the public to fight the ‘war on terror’, the results of these actions can be problematic and often achieve the reverse of their intended goal of suppression. Muslim youth in the UK, for example, often feel subject to a panoptican-style level of observation[iv] online where teachers and lecturers are encouraged to surveil their IT use, referring concerns on to agencies directly linked to the security services, MI5 and MI6, as well as the police. These processes of investigation threaten punishment, they demand and manufacture consent derived from the fear of persecution. But they also reinforce the labelling of this group as ‘dangerous’, mirroring the Islamophobic stigmatising discourse already surrounding them and risking their becoming so alienated that the radicalisation threat becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This paper will apply some of the ideas to the evolving political climate in Europe, where much concern has been voiced over the growth of another form of radicalisation – populism, on the right and left.
In 2016, the UK vote to leave the European Union appeared to many observers to mark Britain out as a racist exception to the cosmopolitanism on the rest of the continent. Whilst this was always somewhat of an over-generalisation – a simplification of a more complex reality – the political kaleidoscope of Europe has since shifted markedly toward the racist right. In 2018, we have right-wing populists in government in countries such as Switzerland, Hungary and Poland. Arguably, this trend began at the millenium in the country of Hitler’s birth, Austria, with the growth of the far-right Freedom Party: Recently a coalition of hard-right Conservatives alongside the ‘Freedom Party’ took office in 2017, and holds the EU presidency from July 2018. Sebastian Kurz – the Austrian PM has hailed a new ‘axis of the willing’ in Europe – willing to do what?
At the time of writing, whilst France and Germany have elected leaders from the mainstream spectrum between centre-left and centre-right, what Tariq Ali has termed ‘the extreme centre’[v] – these two largest European states also have significant far right parties emerging as contenders for power. France’s Front National won 33% of the vote in the 2017 presidential elections and is currently rebranding itself with the less ‘fascistic’ label of Rassemblement National. The new name recalls General De Gaulle’s party, with overtones of replacing democracy with Military rule. Meanwhile Germany, with a 110 million population and the dominant continental economy, has seen the emergence of the new racist Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) whose appeal has been based on anti-immigrant ptopaganda, currently with 94 seats in the national parliament and seats in all of the regional assemblies. However, arguably the major breakthrough for the European far right has been their victory in the 2018 Italian elections.[vi]
The dominant figure in Italian politics of the last two decades, Silvio Berlusconi, was himself a right populist – and owed his success to the repeated capacity of the centre left to demoralise their own supporters by imposing austerity measures when in government, allowing him to repeatedly return to office with promises of national greatness and public largesse which never materialised. In many ways, Berlusconi was a prototype for Donald Trump, a corporate celebrity capitalist becoming a national political leader. After his fall from power, the government of the increasingly unpopular Democratic Party from 2012-18, led by Matteo Renzi then Paulo Gentiloni, was defeated and succeeded in March 2018 by a populist coalition of the Five Star Movement and The League in March 2018. The former are populists who have combined some anti-elite sentiments with anti-migrant rhetoric: The latter were formally known as the Northern League and used to scapegoat migrants, Roma and southern Italians for the country’s woes. Now rebranded and led by racist firebrand Matteo Savini, southerners from the likes of Napoli and Sicily are invited to join the insider grouping of Italians doing the scapegoating, whilst the scale of persecution and hate crimes against the remaining out-group of so-called non-Italians has escalated as the right populists take the helm of government.
A typical example of their rhetoric came from League leader Matteo Salvini in June 2018, exclaiming: Italy is not the doormat of Europe…It’s not possible that with 4m poor Italians we need to take care of half the African continent.’ Another soundbite that summarised his populist and racist approach referred to the Roma population who are, apparently, ‘not happy unless they are stealing.’[vii] The aim of these statements is clearly to provoke the more explicit venting of racist sentiments amongst the ‘native’ Italian population, regardless of the violence that flows in its wake. This is more than simply a war of words however: Salvini has authorised the police to break up Roma camps outside the capital, destroying homes and beating residents. He has also banned the arrival of refugee boats in Italian ports, boosting a climate of intolerance that is spilling over into racist attacks and other forms of hate crime. When these actions are undertaken by national leaders, rather than extremist and marginalised groups, they sanction the prejudice that breeds hate crime and encourage its’ spread. In August 2018, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán proclaimed the success of the far right:
Hungary has shown that we can stop migrants on land. Salvini has shown migrants can be stopped at sea. We thank him for protecting Europe’s borders…European elections are coming. We have to change a lot of things. There are two sides at the moment in Europe. One is led by Macron, who is supporting migration. The other one is supported by countries who want to protect their borders. Hungary and Italy belong to the latter.[viii]
Professor Ruth Wodak has analysed this style of racist discourse in her important work on ‘The Politics of Fear’. Right wing populist rhetoric will:
stress a heartland (or homeland, Heimat) which has to be protected against dangerous outsiders. In this way, threat scenarios are constructed – the homeland or ‘We’ are threatened by ‘Them’ (strangers inside the society of from outside, migrants, Turks, Jews, Roma, bankers, Muslims etc.)[ix]
Salvini echoed this desire, adding, ‘We are going to fight pro-migrant policies supported by Macron and Soros.’ (Tondo 2018) George Soros, the Hungarian international financial speculator, is both Jewish and a banker, thus becoming a legitimate target of hate speech from their perspective. As Michael Welch explains in his Scapegoats of September 11th: Hate Crimes and State Crimes in the War on Terror, ‘blaming provides as a potent defense mechanism against accepting responsibility and serves to project one’s insecurity and weakness onto another person.’[x] Orbán recently:
denounced Mr Soros as one of Hungary’s enemies that “do not believe in work, but speculate with money”. Using language that was antisemitic in tone, Mr Orbán added: “They have no homeland but feel that the whole world is theirs.”[xi]
The fact that he made these comments on a state visit to Israel also drew criticism of Israel’s PM for the invitation from opposition MP Yair Lapid: ‘Today Netanyahu will give honour to Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary, who praised the antisemitic ruler [Horthy] who collaborated with the Nazis in the extermination of Hungarian Jewry. A disgrace!’[xii] Of course, Israel is also a country where politicians have secured power by scapegoating an outsider group – Palestinians and Israeli Arabs -now both locked out of their civil rights by Israel’s new nationality law.
The sociology of deviance began by focusing on the way we understand the ‘outsider’ group themselves and the way that the attitude of the dominant section of society shapes their self-perception,[xiii] but it is important to also examine the sociology of the ‘oppressor’ or those they appeal to – who could be termed the ‘established’ group. In Norbert Elias’s introduction to ‘The Established and the Outsiders’ he defined it thus:
The self-enhancing quality of a high power ratio flatters the collective self-love which is also the reward for submission to group-specific norms, to patterns of affect restraint characteristic of that group and believed to be lacking in less powerful ‘inferior’ groups, outsiders and outcasts.[xiv] .
Phrases such as ‘high power ratio’ and ‘self-love’ cannot help but bring to mind the current US president, whose recent tweet on this topic mirrors the European right populist argument: ‘Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture.’[xv]In the right-populist world, the victims of violence and hate crime are themselves to blame due to the patent inferiority of their ‘culture’. The process Elias describes as ‘patterns of affect restraint characteristic of that group and believed to be lacking in less powerful “inferior” groups’ may be simply shown by rejecting another group’s code of dress, for example. Wodak denounces these ‘simplistic dichotomies’, reinforced ‘by positive self and negative other presentation’. She also highlights the trick of what she calls the technique of ‘victim-perpetrator reversal.’[xvi] Powerful people such as Heads of State verbalise their ‘fear’ of a dangerous ‘other’: They assume the existence of a degree of resentment from those they are discriminating against, and then use their privileged access to the media to describe how ‘frightened’ they feel as a result – thus legitimising the same emotions in others. Strangers become ‘folk devils’[xvii] who are crossing their borders, taking up resources and threatening to import violence in the form of terrorism.
The UK has made a substantial contribution to the manufacture of such a Muslim moral panic with the infamous diatribe of ex-Foreign Secretary and aspirant Tory leader Boris Johnson. The title of the August 2018 article in The Daily Telegraph looked progressive, claiming to explain why he would not ban the burka, but included two or three phrases he knew would be amplified and repeated ad nauseum across the media. These were: ‘it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes’ and ‘If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber…’[xviii] This was a classic piece of ‘dog-whistle’ politics: a senior statesman describing Muslim women wearing the burka as looking like letter boxes and bank robbers. This racist and provocative language is designed to encourage others to express their disapproval and prejudice, and feel legitimised by his description of the item of clothing as ‘oppressive and ridiculous’. There have since been incidents where someone tried to ‘post’ a letter into a woman’s headgear in Leicester. This hate crime of assault would never have happened in that form were it not for Johnson’s irresponsible scapegoating of an economically marginalised group of women by a white man from Britain’s most privileged enclave.
Three years ago, in the summer of 2015, the heroic refusal of thousands of refugees to accept their fate led to a march down the motorways of central Europe combined with the demand for asylum for the victims of wars, civil and international.[xix] Angela Merkel’s German government responded by taking in close to one million migrants, people whose labour will be vital in future years for a country with an ageing population. However, the racist backlash against this multiculturalism has bred the success of the right-populist AfD, and frightened more mainstream politicians into accommodating to the new moral panic about the effects of migration. ‘I would immediately order the police to immediately turn away from the border people who are either prohibited from entry, or prohibited from staying’ pronounced Horst Seehofer of Merkel’s right wing coalition partners, the Christian Social Union (CSU) in June 2018, and Government Minister of the Interior. Note it was important to say both ‘immediately’ and ‘prohibited’ twice in this short soundbite, conveying the language of panic and the accompanying firmness of tone required.
Angela Merkel responded by assuring Seehofer – and the German public – that she was now in the business of correcting the ‘mistake’ of open borders, and was on the same page as the CSU, stating ‘From the 63 points of the “migration masterplan” there is complete unity on 62.’[xx] This is another tragic example of the culpabiltiy of the mainstream neoliberal governments for the growth of hate crimes and the practice of state stigmatisation of migrants and other groups. By accommodating to irrational fears and prejudices they feed the monster of right populism. No doubt the recent migrants to Germany must be fearing for their futures at the time of writing, as racist riots have occurred every night from 26th to 31st August in the city of Chemnitz, with hundreds of youth giving Nazi salutes and constant threats of racist attacks on migrants. Apparently ‘Horst Seehofer has yet to comment directly on the events for which he has received widespread criticism…helping to fuel the xenophobic mood with his anti-immigrant stance.’[xxi]
Merkel has spoken out firmly, expressing her horror at these events: ‘We have recordings of [people] hunting down others, of unruly assemblies, and hate in the streets, and that has nothing to do with our constitutional state.’[xxii] It is to be hoped that she becomes equally firm in standing up for the right to migrate and differentiates herself from the xenophobes, but there will be pressure from some in her party to make further concessions to the growing mood of intolerance. Merkel has form on this issue. In 2016, one year after her decision to let in the refugees, the day after her party endured a second setback in a state election in two weeks, Merkel retreated: ‘For some time, we didn’t have enough control, No one wants a repeat of last year’s situation, including me.’[xxiii] More election defeats in autumn 2018 have led Merkel to state she will stand down after their next election.
According to the racist right all over Europe, the level of migration is the reason for their electoral success, but is this necessarily so? After all, the neoliberal style of government has been alienating citizens and delivering the rising inequality which can prompt the search for scapegoats for over forty years, during which the scale of racism has varied.[xxiv] Criminologists have stressed neolberalism’s culpability for the criminal and violent atmosphere that has been created:
The new political consensus has been forged in a silent pact between the liberal left and the neoliberal right, a dual power bloc that looks down on the corpses of socialism and one-nation conservatism…has opened a gap between institutionalised politics and the life of the people.[xxv]
According to an important recent report, escalating xenophobia is not due to migration but anti-migrant propaganda[xxvi] (Corporate Watch 2018). Looking at the last two decades of UK policy, it describes how, in 2001, ‘asylum seekers’ were targeted by the Blair government in order to neutralise the appeal of the far-right British National Party (BNP). This is a classic case of ‘shifting the window’ – where the political climate shifts to the right as mainstream politicians seek to maintain popularity – in the process bringing a marginal and bigoted opinion into the mainstream. As shadow Home Secretary in the mid-1990s, Blair had cultivated an image of the ‘tough guy’ – starting with outrage over the killing of Jamie Bulger and then setting a precedent for this job which was aped by his successors, Straw, Blunkett & Reid. In the 2010s, coalition Home Secretary, Theresa May followed in their footsteps – pioneering the ‘hostile environment’ policy for migrants which has damaged their citizenship rights whilst making it ever-more respectable for ‘British citizens’ to scapegoat this group. The 2018 Windrush generation scandal, where genuine British citizens with family links to the West Indies who lacked correct paperwork found themselves deported and jailed, has exposed the cruelty and hypocrisy of anti-migration policies.[xxvii] They found themselves persecuted by the Home Office, as part of the government’s pledge to create a ‘hostile environment’ for so-called illegal migrants. Women and men were imprisoned in immigration detention centres, benefits denied and employment curtailed. As the late Stuart Hall, Jamaican Marxist and critical criminologist declared:
Under certain circumstances, legitimate political minorities are subjected to severe ‘status degradation’ ceremonies, and are lumped with the more marginal groups. They are then subject to quite different forms of public opprobrium, stigmatization, and exclusion. They have been symbolically de-legitimised.[xxviii]
Whilst this remains true of the situation of UK Muslims generally, with the Windrush scandal the ‘public opprobrium’ fell more upon the government than its victims – leading to the Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s resignation. This reminds us that however reactionary the government policy it will not always succeed. The public outrage expressed in a big meeting in Lambeth, south London addressed by Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and campaigning Guardian journalist Gary Younge, demonstrated how such divide and rule policies can backfire[xxix]. In the UK, in November 2018, there has been a growth in both the racist and the anti-racist movements. As Colin Beck discusses, we can learn lessons from the experience of social movements which help explain the dynamics of the relationship between the state and its citizens:
While repression can suppress overall mobilization, in certain cases, it may also make militancy more likely… the inconsistent use of force in the Iranian Revolution intensified mobilization, and della Porta (1995) finds that state repression actually suppresses moderate alternatives, radicalizes remaining supporters, and creates the martyrs and myths that militants use to justify their actions.[xxx]
The spectre that haunts the establishment in the UK is the potential success of a form of left-populism, Labour becoming elected under Jeremy Corbyn. His popularity reflects a radicalisation to the left is occurring as well as to the right, and not only in the UK. The magnificent anti-racist reaction to the rise of the AfD in Germany has been seen in frequent counter demonstrations. Anti-racists have been on the streets of Chemnitz every night in late August/early September 2018 to protest the fascist attacks, notably the 65 000 at an anti-racist carnival in Chemnitz in September, and the 250 000 on the magnificent Berlin ‘Indivisible’ demonstration in October. [xxxi]
The aggressive policing regime in the US bred a new resistance in the form of the #blacklivesmatter movement since 2014. [xxxii] The Trump presidency has since amplified the waves of protest sweeping the nation, as anti-racists, women and school students campaign on the streets against legal and violent outrages associated with the right-populist president. Popular activism has been growing on the left as well as the right. Italians in Catania, southern Sicily, have protested in support of the right of migrants to land in their port, holding up arancini riceballs – the traditional welcome for visitors. Austrian activists have won the right to publicly abuse the racist Freedom Party leader, Strache, in a ruling from the supreme court.[xxxiii] Many Europeans in the likes of Scotland and Catalonia have been protesting for their independence and left parties have made big gains in Greece, Spain and Portugal since 2015 – although their policies in office have often disappointed earlier hopes. We are all in a race for what kind of popular movement will shape the future.
[i] Brecht, Bertolt (1941) The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (German: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui)
[ii] Wodak, Ruth (2015) The Politics of Fear London: Sage x
[iii] Hall, Stuart (1974) ‘Deviance, Politics and the Media’ in Paul Rock and Mary McIntosh (eds.) Deviance and Social Control London: Tavistock 262
[iv] Refers to Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison where all the cells are visible to a central control point i.e. stimulating self-control through fear of surveillance.
[v]Ali, Tariq (2018) The Extreme Centre London: Verso
[vi] Kington, Tom and Basile Simon ‘Italian election 2018: results and analysis’ The Times 7.3.2018
[vii] Kington, Tom ‘Salvini wants Gypsy census to weed out non-Italians’ The Times 19.6.2018
[viii] Tondo, Lorenzo ‘Salvini and Orbán “walk the same path” to halt migrants’ The Guardian 29.8.2018
[ix]Wodak (2015) 66
[x] Welch, Michael (2006) Scapegoats of September 11th: Hate Crimes and State Crimes in the War on Terror New York: Rutgers University Press 10
[xi] Trew, Bel ‘Israel’s Netanyahu criticised for wooing Hungary’s far-right prime minister Orbán’ Independent 19.7.2018
[xiii] Cohen, Albert (1955) Delinquent Boys : The culture of the gang Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, Becker, Howard (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press
[xiv] Elias, Norbert ‘Introduction’ in Elias, Norbert & John Scotson (2008) The Established & the Outsiders Dublin: UCD Press 30
[xv] Charter, David and Charles Bremner ‘Angela Merkel given extra time to solve migrant crisis’ The Times 19.6.2018
[xvi] Wodak (2015) 67-68
[xvii] Cohen, Stan (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the mods and rockers London: McGibbon and Kee
[xviii] Johnson, Boris ‘Denmark has got it wrong. Yes the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it’ Daily Telegraph 5th August 2018
[xix] European Parliament (2015) ‘EU migrant crisis: facts and figures’ http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20170629STO78630/eu-migrant-crisis-facts-and-figures
[xx]Charter, David and Charles Bremner ‘Angela Merkel given extra time to solve migrant crisis’ The Times 19.6.2018
[xxi] Connolly, Kate ‘German police criticised following far-right attacks in the east’ The Guardian 29.8.2018
[xxiii] Osborne, Samuel ‘Angela Merkel admits she lost control of refugee crisis in Germany and would ‘turn back time’ if she could’ The Independent 21.9.2016
[xxiv] Harvey, David (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism Oxford:Oxford University Press
[xxv] Winlow, Simon. Steve Hall & James Treadwell (2017) The rise of the Right: English nationalism and the transformation of working-class politics Bristol: Policy Press 2
[xxvi] Corporate Watch (UK) May 2018 – What is immigration policy for?
[xxvii] Davies, William ‘Weaponising Paperwork’ London Review of Books Vol. 40 (9) 10.5.2018
[xxviii] Hall (1974) 267
[xxx] Beck, Colin J. (2008) ‘The Contribution of Social Movement Theory to Understanding Terrorism’ Sociology Compass 2/5 1572
[xxxii] Taylor, Keeanga Yamahtta (2016) From #blacklivematter to Black Liberation Chicago: Haymarket
[xxxiii] Fearnow, Benjamin ‘Austrian Court Rules Protesters Can Give Middle Finger to Far-right Vice Chancellor Strache’ Newsweek 3.1.2018