While scholars may struggle to define what populism is, it’s a lot less difficult to identify what causes it. Populism is a direct reaction to neo-liberal capitalism. As the Marmonova, Franquesa, and Brooks article puts it, “socio-economic inequalities are the fundamental driving force in defining political cleavages and conflicts in rural Europe today” (1516). Despite the claims currently being made in many neo-liberal democracies, neo-liberal democracy is the cause of, not the solution to, the ascendance of populism. However, as the Molnar article articulates within the context of Germany, in order for this fact to be comprehensible, the hegemonic teleology of neo-liberal democracy must be dismantled. If this is done, then the post-Cold War period “appears less as a redemptive end point and more as a foreboding new beginning” (514). This is because even in a success story like Germany, the application of neo-liberal capitalism resulted in losers as well as winners. Just ask the small farmers of Saxony. Neo-liberal democracy isn’t a centrist and neutral position. Nor is it inevitable or inarguable or without alternative. The alternative is populism. As the Marmonova, Franquesa, and Brooks article illustrates in several countries, while neo-liberalism has been great for agricultural mega-corporations, it has been really bad for small farmers, so why wouldn’t those small farmers look for a political alternative? Similarly, due to the depopulation caused by neo-liberalism, representative democracy no longer works for rural areas, so why wouldn’t the people who live there look for a political alternative? However, that alternative doesn’t have to be neo-fascism. For example, the politics of rural Spain demonstrates that, if the Left can provide a compelling alternative, then they too can be successful. In the absence of a compelling leftist alternative, however, far-right populism wins by default. Unfortunately, far-right populism does nothing for the economically disadvantaged people who support it because, as Bull describes in the Italian context, populism reacts to economic problems not by encouraging class-consciousness, but by creating a consciousness of “the people”. This provides no alternative to neo-liberal capitalism, the root of the problem, but merely an “other” group (southern Italians, Roma, Turks) upon which the problem can irrationally be blamed. In the absence of a credible Left that would identify class as the most useful category of societal analysis, the losers in the rigged game of neo-liberal capitalism are left only with a far-right populism that expresses their legitimate rage using an illegitimate discourse of nationalism and race.
The topics of migration and democratisation stand out to me most succinctly in this week’s readings. In the years following German reunification and the dissolution of the USSR, these topics were on the minds of everyone in the Western Bloc; how to manage the influx of migrants from formerly Communist states, and how to properly integrate those states into the Capitalist free market world order. Combined with the increasing globally-interconnecting environment of the 1990s and early 2000s, issues that arose during this period continue to plague European politics to this day. Most notably, I would like to draw parallels between increased foreign migration to Germany after reunification and increased migration to Europe as a whole resulting from the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
As we’ve discussed together in class, racism and “othering” seems to be a constant in the ideology-bundle of right-wing populism. Throughout the Cold War, large numbers of Turkish immigrants migrated to West Germany to rectify their postwar need for labour. Many of them were unable to become German citizens, as West German citizenship law operated under jus sanguinis (meaning your parents must be German for you to be German). It would only be until 2000 when Germany would reform their citizenship law to jus soli (meaning if you are born on German soil, you are German). Yet, the presence of a large non-German population would spark a wave of neo-Nazi resurgence and attacks on foreigners from people desperately trying to keep Germany for the Germans. Come 2011 with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and subsequently the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War*, the German right-wing would capitalise on a large influx of non-white Muslim immigrants to popularise their platform. Similarly to the influx of Turks, discrimination and violence would befall these populations.
*This title may now go to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, which has produced almost 15 million refugees displaced worldwide compared to Syria’s 11 million.
Even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, vast swaths of people from East-Germany had attempted to flee into the west. Many would attempt to cross the wall in Berlin with some even being killed. Of course this issue would spill over once the Soviet Union fell, and many individuals that made it into the west were not all necessarily coming in with good intentions, and the Molnar article explains how German society found itself more multicultural then it ever had been, and that this had created a lot of tension among the far-right. This tension would spill over in the form of violence against non-Germans, and would highlight that racist sentiments were still very much prevalent in Germany even by the 90’s. What is even more shocking is that these sentiments were not just disorganized far-right groups, but the German government itself “Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his government developed a plan that sought to dramatically reduce the number of Turks in Germany by paying them and their families to leave Germany forever. The plan, overwhelmingly supported by the German people, was put into law in 1983.” (Molnar) The fact that this action was overwhelmingly supported by the German population hammers home that those racist sentiments were still there. What is even scarier is that it is still present pretty much to this day as highlighted by Mamonova when she talks about how the right-wing party “Alternative für Deutschland” is heavily backed by eastern villages in Saxony where racist anti-refugee sentiments are very strong. Why do they still feel this way though? Is it really just remnants of fascist ideology, or is there something else at play here?
Christopher Molnar, “Greetings from the Apocalypse”: Race, Migration, and Fear after German Reunification” Central European History, (2021), 1-25.
Natalia Mamonova, Jaume Franquesa, and Sally Brooks, “‘Actually Existing’ Right-Wing Populism in Rural Europe: Insights from Eastern Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ukraine,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 47, no. 7 (2020): 1497–1525