Aurelien Mondon – Violent ideals or populist strategy?
A few weeks after the terrible events which occurred in Norway and cost the lives of dozens of innocents, the European extreme right is at a crossroads. Imbued in his self-righteous spirit, Anders Berhing Breivik might have dealt a serious blow to the short-term ambitions of the populist strategy implemented by parties from this fringe of politics in the past two decades.
As clearly expressed in his 1518-page manifesto, Breivik drew heavily on the work and opinions of many extreme right-wing and neo-racist ‘mainstream’ commentators and politicians to form his worldview. In fact, it seems that little was truly original. Of course, it would be both pointless and counterproductive to push blame for Breivik’s action onto the writings of a myriad of right-wing polemicists and politicians. Yet it is worth considering whether his will to take the irrational fears they instilled in people to their most extreme conclusion could prove enormously damaging for such ideas in the near future.
Breivik’s actions, as well as his manifesto, show clearly that he was an idealist. He refused to settle for small electoral victories and believed his martyrdom would do more than all the populist speeches in the world: he was ready to die for the cause he believed in. He could no longer wait for the parties he supported across Europe to gain momentum through the parliamentary democratic channels, and chose instead to act. It appears he believed the slaughter of Labour sympathisers and politicians would trigger what the ‘mainstream’ extreme right had failed to create: the long-awaited reaction of ‘real’ Europeans in the face of invasion and decadence.
More than in his writing or his mode of action, Breivik’s idealism is striking in the identity of his victims. Breivik did not target the usual minorities. Unlike the English Defence League (EDL) and its European acolytes, he did not go on a rampage against the Muslim community. Unlike the organised extreme right, he did not assault a minority which he believed was slowly invading ‘Us’. Much more reflectively and idealistically, he attacked those he believed held the real responsibility for the invasion. These were not the invaders themselves. They were the enemies from the inside, the groups which had collaborated to open the gates of Europe to Islam.
Breivik’s idealism is crucial for the near future of the extreme right for two main reasons.
First, it demonstrates to those who have recently argued that the extreme right is asking legitimate questions that its agenda is not limited to stopping or reducing immigration through liberal democratic channels. While the extreme right cannot be thought of as one singular coherent movement, the events in Norway nonetheless demonstrate that, when pushed to the extreme, the logical conclusion of extreme right politics is not merely the neo-racist electoral and pseudo-democratic struggle against immigration and Islamisation. It is of course the stigmatisation and aggression of often defenceless minorities, but it is first and foremost the wish to overturn democratic principles.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, by showing the true face of the extreme right, Breivik has potentially ruined over two decades of normalisation of such politics. Since the 1980s, part of the European extreme right has carefully navigated the waters of parliamentary democracies to eventually be tolerated as a contender, albeit an often decried one. Core to this shift were neo-racist and populist strategies. No longer was the extreme right relying on crude biological racism and hereditary inequality and inferiority of certain groups. Instead, as Etienne Balibar noted, neo-racist discourse insisted on the ‘irreducibility of cultural differences; a racism which, at first sight, does not imply the superiority of certain groups or peoples over others, but “only” the noxiousness of the removal of borders, the incompatibility of ways of life and traditions’. Therefore, the extreme right has been able to defuse attacks that are traditionally racist on two counts: it is not exactly the ‘Other’ who is to blame, but rather its impact on us and our society; ‘we’ are not racist, we have just been taken advantage of for too long. In this conception of neo-racism, the concepts of superiority and inferiority are sworn to have been abandoned. The ‘Other’ is not lesser than ‘We’ are, ‘They’ are just different and we should respect difference. The logical conclusion to this is that they stay away and let ‘Us’ be different. It is therefore not surprising to see some extreme right leaders defending the process of decolonisation under the guise that Europe is being colonised as former colonies had been. Even though this rhetorical veneer does not resist a thorough analysis, it has allowed the extreme right to lend its ideas much credibility. As such, it is not surprising that this normalisation has led to both its success in the polls and the borrowing of its ideas, or at least rhetoric, by many mainstream parties.
The extreme right’s resurgence and acceptance was also deeply aided by its right-wing populist discourse, used in pair with neo-racism. With the use of skilled rhetoric, the extreme right created its ‘people’ through the exclusion of minorities. As it allowed the extreme right to gain ‘democratic’ legitimacy through the implied support of the ‘people’, populism has also allowed for the simplification of complicated matters. The extreme right has been able to offer a Manichean view of the world and rely on the basest instincts of the voting population through the veneration of their ‘common sense’. Its leaders often pride themselves on ‘saying out loud what everyone thinks in silence’. Similarly, the extreme right often relies on an idealised past, a ‘purer’ simpler society, a golden age: the mythical ‘good old times’. In contrast, the vocabulary used to describe the future, but also ‘enemies’, is revealing. The ‘others’ – often immigrants – are characterised with aggressive and military vocabulary such as ‘invaders’ or ‘colonisers’ ‘occupying’ western countries. While the ‘empire’ is often regarded with nostalgia by extreme right parties and movements when it refers to the glorious past of western nations, it is used pejoratively – not dissimilarly to left-wing criticism of the neo-imperialist tendencies of the West nowadays – when referring to immigrants’ arrival in the west. Role reversal through populist rhetoric is also common in the extreme right arsenal. For example, the poorest, who have no choice but to rely on welfare assistance, are often portrayed as lucky idlers, living comfortable lives and feeding off the hard work of tax payers from the lower-middle and middle classes. In turn, these relatively comfortable, yet increasingly anxious, classes are depicted as poorer and more miserable than the ‘real’ poor, and praised for their high moral qualities, found in the hard work they are willing to put in and the ‘simple’ life they are willing to live. The extreme right can therefore argue these ‘people’ are poorly represented in a parliament which promotes a system of lazy ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘undeserving poor’.
In all logic, Breivik’s attacks on 22 July should damage the populist stratagem. The vocabulary central to extreme right propaganda has changed; the events of 22 July put in question whether the doctrines have. Until then, mainstream parties had become increasingly willing to tolerate the extreme right, and even to give it more space within politics by borrowing its rhetoric. Breivik’s idealism might have backfired on the whole extreme right populist agenda. Had Breivik attacked a Muslim community, much of the extreme right would have condemned the action, but many would have added that this is a symbol of the malaise of the ‘true’ European youth in the face of invasion. That while they could not agree with Breivik’s action, they could understand his desperation. As it turned out, and contrary to the cowardice often central to extreme right manoeuvres, Breivik did not want to opportunistically attack a powerless ethnic or religious minority. Instead, he chose to attack the real enemy of the extreme right, the same enemy the extreme right has constantly come up against since the late nineteenth century: the progressives, the left. While Breivik saw Islam as the evil invading society, he did not see Muslims themselves as the culprit. Rather, he blamed the left, albeit moderate, and its multiculturalism.
By attacking a mainstream moderate government and its young sympathisers, Breivik put the European extreme right in a very uncomfortable situation. The few who raised their voices to defend Breivik’s motives were soon denounced by their own parties, often alienating their supporters. In the case of the Le Pen family, Marine’s lack of denunciation, and then passive condonation, after comments her father made might prove a lethal blow in her high ambition for the 2012 presidential elections. In any case, the extreme right is caught in a paradox: the obligation to defend itself from associations with the Norwegian ‘madman’ is also bound to backfire. Logically, if all extreme right members are not Breiviks, then all Muslims cannot be bin Ladens.
If this is true for the extreme right, it must be true for a growing part of the mainstream right and even left, which has increasingly been borrowing right-wing populist ideas and rhetoric. While it remains to be seen whether these logical, although uncomfortable conclusions will be drawn, we can hope that this will put a dent in the growing respectability of the extreme right, and reinforce our will to keep working together for a more open, equal society.
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