25 years of right wing extremism in Belgium: Lessons for the present

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Jan Blommaert

The Brexit, followed by the election of Donald Trump in the US, have raised worldwide concerns about the rise of right wing extremism. The phenomenon is, however, 25 years old in Belgium. Lessons can be drawn from that longitudinal experience.

24 November 1991 is known as “Black Sunday” in Belgium. On that day, a relatively new party called Vlaams Blok radically redefined the electoral landscape in the country with a first massive victory at the polls. Prior to that national breakthrough, the party had won the local elections in Antwerp. But Black Sunday sent shock waves through the Belgian political system, and its effects are enduring.

The Vlaams Blok program

Vlaams Blok (“Flemish Block”, later renamed Vlaams Belang – “Flemish Interest”) won its seats in Parliament due to a mixture of three powerful elements. The mixture will sound familiar to observers of the present.

  1. Extreme nationalism. While in Flemish Belgium moderate forms of nationalism had been common – most Flemish parties would support a degree of autonomy for Flanders, and some more radical ones would demand a federal structure for Belgium – Vlaams Blok demanded the unspeakable: Flemish independence.
  2. An anti-immigrant program. Vlaams Blok was the party that put immigration and Islam not just on the political agenda, but made it into THE electoral trump card.
  3. Charismatic and undisputed leadership. Vlaams Blok won its first election with two highly articulate and technically competent young politicians, Filip Dewinter and Gerolf Annemans. Unbeatable in media debates and easily perceived as champions of the “common man”, these two figureheads survived several generations of politicians and are still active today. Their leadership in the party remained unqualified until very recently.

The main innovation brought by Vlaams Blok was point (2) in this list. Until 1988, immigration and multiculturalism were marginal as political themes. As a policy domain of very modest scope, these themes had emerged in Belgium in the late 1970s only, and they had emerged in the broader context of the socio-economic issues following the economic recession of the mid-1970s. Immigrants had been particularly hard-hit by the economic contraction, and politicians felt that specific measures should be taken. The problem with immigrants was defined as a socio-economic one.

Vlaams Blok brought a radically different definition of the problem. Immigrants presented a cultural and political threat to Flemish society. Their presence distorted and threatened the fundamental identity of Flanders as a white, Christian and Dutch-speaking region characterized by a set of values and preferences with which those of – notably Muslim – minorities were profoundly at odds. Since, in addition to this, the economic role of immigrants had declined due to the recession, immigrants should be turned back to their countries of origin.

Onto this anti-immigrant theme, several others could be grafted.

  1. Vlaams Blok strongly advocated a law-and-order approach openly focused on immigrant youth, seen as the source of urban unrest, waves of petty crime (often drugs-related) and widespread feelings of insecurity in some urban neighborhoods. Of course, 9/11 and the proclamation of the worldwide War on (Muslim) Terror provided powerful boosts to this aspect of the Vlaams Blok agenda.
  2. The party also advocated the restrictions of social welfare benefits and civil and political rights to “native” Flemish people, excluding immigrants from the welfare state and/or creating a dual system of social policy. Naturally, full citizenship (including the right to vote and seek political mandates) should be the privilege of “native” Flemish people only.

The most dramatic impact of Vlaams Blok, however, was more general:

  1. They redefined the meaning of “democracy”. They did so with a simple slogan: “we are saying what you are thinking”. And they added a simple argument to that, directed at their political adversaries: since we win elections, we represent “the voice of the people” and you don’t. The other parties were defined as “traditional”, an enclosed “political elite” alienated from the “common man”, and this traditional elite politics had created a “gap between citizens and politics” which Vlaams Blok had filled. The party systematically presented itself as the champion of freedom of speech, and would never stop complaining about media censorship and silencing tactics performed against them by the “elites”.

Vlaams Blok was proud of its extreme right-wing roots and program; prominent members would attend events celebrating Flemish SS-veterans of World War II, and the party established a strong network with other extreme right-wing and neofascist movements across Europe. Vlaams Blok members would proudly call themselves “right wing”, “radical” and “uncompromising”, thus adding previously unheard political self-qualifications to the political-discursive register of Belgian politics.

The impact of Vlaams Blok

The political adversaries of the Vlaams Blok reacted swiftly to the electoral shockwave of Black Sunday. A cordon sanitaire was declared by all other parties, promising never to enter into formal political collaboration with the party. Politicians would, until this day, explicitly proclaim their fundamental differences with Vlaams Blok and their refusal to enter into coalitions with them. Much later, in 2004, the party was brought to court on racism charges. The controversial trial led to a conviction, and the party was forced to change its name into Vlaams Belang.

Implicitly, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments.

This was the explicit part of the reaction. Implicitly, however, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments, in a kind of pied-piper reflex aimed at regaining the lost electoral ground. Even more: the six points listed above have, 25 years after the electoral breakthrough of this right-wing extremist party, become mainstream. Thus, while the cordon sanitaire excluded the party from power, its influence was pervasive and persistent. The party caused a decisive political-discursive shift – the same shift as the one now witnessed elsewhere in Europe and the US.

By opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted

This shift can be described as follows. By introducing new “extreme” topics and modes of political speech (qualified, systematically, as “simply stating facts” and therefore matters of “freedom of speech”), all previously “extremist” positions became “moderate”. Thus by opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted along. Concretely, when one demands that all illegal aliens ought to be deported, every proposal for repression short of deportation becomes “moderate” and reasonable in comparison to the “extreme” one. Similarly, if one demands independence for Flanders, proposals for a confederal state can be presented as moderate and reasonable, even if they are vastly more radical than previously held plans for a federal state. And so forth. The entire specter of Belgian politics moved, quite dramatically, in that direction.

Thus, after 1991, all parties embarked on large-scale exercises of rebranding and reorganization, aimed at “closing the gap” with the citizens defined by Vlaams Blok. The traditional system in which parties articulated the interests of large and well-organized civil society organizations (trade unions, religious and socio-economically defined communities, local and regional constituencies) and relied on a large membership of militants was rapidly replaced by an entirely new format of political practice based on high-profile personalities, marketing, polling and mass mediatized propaganda, later significantly expanded by the use of internet-based new media. Politicians became celebrities (and celebrities became politicians), and the voter was, henceforth, approached as a “customer” rather than as an ideologically affiliated fellow-traveler. The era of the glib and quotable one-liner and “politics-as-lifestyle-option” had arrived, replacing that of the slow and careful technical explanation of policy options. All parties desperately wished to avoid being trapped in the label of “elite”, and all claimed to express “the voice of the common man”. Populism, in short, became the default mode of politics. New types of political leaders, new types of political style, discourse, tactics and strategy were established, and new themes started dominating the political landscape.

For the same shift towards the Vlaams Blok could be seen in all the thematic domains listed above. Far more radical versions of Flemish nationalism became mainstream. And when an erstwhile “moderate” Flemish-nationalist party exploded in the early years of the millennium, a far more radical one succeeded it, called N-VA. Article 1 of their Statute identifies Flemish independence as the ultimate political goal. This party is currently the largest Flemish party, and dominates both the Flemish and the Federal Governments. More on this below.

Immigration and multiculturalism became overwhelmingly culturalized, and the socio-economic line previously followed was all but entirely abandoned and replaced by Huntington-ian discourses of “integration problems” caused by fundamental cultural-religious differences between “us” and – increasingly but incessantly – Muslims. Law-and-order repression replaced softer approaches aimed at employability, education and training, and improved social mobility for minority members. Voting rights became a taboo issue, and immigrants acquired voting rights only as part of the implementation of EU-directives in 2004. The dominant discursive and policy model now is that minority members “need to take responsibility” for their own position of inequality, that racism is too often used as an excuse for failing to use the opportunities “we” offer “them”, and that Muslim “extremism” means that “integration has failed” and that a more coercive approach is warranted.

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too. Black Sunday was explained in the media in precisely the terms defined by Vlaams Blok: yes, there was a problem of democratic legitimacy for the “traditional” parties, and yes, Vlaams Blok asked “the right questions” (but gave undesirable answers). Throughout the 1990, the mass media provided encouraging commentary for the shift towards populism and the adoption of important parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda. In a political system increasingly dominated by mass-mediatization, this support mattered, it mattered a great deal.

Lessons for today?

Vlaams Blok became the single most consistently successful political formation in Belgian politics since World War II. From its first electoral success in 1988 until 2006, the party won 13 consecutive electoral victories. It did so in spite of a cordon sanitaire which deprived voters from any hope of real executive power, and in spite of the mass copying and imitation acts of all other parties. This success story also turned Vlaams Blok from an early mover in the European extreme-right-wing universe into an exceptionally consistent political formation, and a model for several more recent similar European parties.

The tactic of copying and imitation, thus, did not pay off for the other political parties. The Flemish Social-Democrats, for instance, lost half of their electorate in the period since Black Sunday. Filip Dewinter himself would provide a simple explanation: people would always prefer the authentic brand product above its imitations or counterfeit versions. He was right, of course: given their adoption of substantial parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda, parties found it increasingly difficult to wage a convincing and consistent opposition against Vlaams Blok. And given the technical brilliance of the latter’s leaders in media performances, defeat was almost inevitable for the “traditional” parties.

The party lost some of its electoral force after the worldwide crisis of 2008, when socio-economic themes regained prominence in political discourse and programs. But the first really bad defeat only occurred in 2014, when the previously mentioned recently created N-VA party captured about one third of the Flemish electorate, led by a charismatic and highly media-friendly leader Bart de Wever. Interestingly, this party did copy and imitate Vlaams Blok – it did so almost entirely in the six domains sketched earlier – but it combined this Vlaams Blok agenda with an outspoken and radical neoliberal economic platform. Thus, the Vlaams Blok program has now acquired executive power. N-VA has cleverly exploited the huge discursive shift mentioned earlier, moving as closely as possible to the positions held by Vlaams Blok, and just adding a “moderate” (essentially a more “rational”) stylistic inflection. And it drew most of its voters in the 2014 ballot from the existing Vlaams Blok electorate.

Copying and imitation does pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift performed by “illegitimate” political actors has been normalized.

Thus, copying and imitation does appear to pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift – the expansion of what is politically thinkable and publicly sayable, performed by “illegitimate” political actors such as Vlaams Blok – has been normalized. N-VA needed the overtly extremist (and legally racist) Vlaams Blok in order to create a “normal” political place for itself. Likewise, Boris Johnson can only be explained by Nigel Farage and the English Defence League; and Donald Trump capitalizes on the efforts of an extremely radical neoconservative movement that started under Clinton and took the shape of the Tea Party under Obama. Thus, the new, radical right-wing politicians we now have emerge in a new, reshaped discursive field in which much of what was seen as shocking and politically transgressive two decades ago can be presented now as just a statement of fact, the performance of which is a matter of freedom of speech, and, ultimately, a vital sign of of a true and vibrant democracy.

“We are saying what you are thinking” has become the single most powerful political motif in recent years. In Belgium, it has profoundly transformed the political arena for 25 years, and it has been consistently successful. Witnessing the more recent re-enactments of this process of transformation elsewhere in the world is, therefore, a highly frustrating experience – the same patterns evolved, the same errors were made, and the same outcomes define a present which, looking back, was in fact highly predictable.

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Anachronism as power

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Jan Blommaert 

What follows is part of the “Durkheim and the Internet” project – a self-conscious attempt at drawing theories of wider relevance from recent sociolinguistic studies and evidence. The theories are designed to provide a generalizable heuristic for new research, a set of potentially productive “grounded” hypotheses to be deployed in a wide variety of domains of investigation.

One of the theories emerging from this project is a theory of power – not a general one (power per se) but a specific one, about one kind of institutional power. Two points of departure underlie the effort here.

  1. In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber describes the fundamental stupidity of contemporary bureaucratization, observing the spread of what he calls “power without knowledge”: “where coercion and paperwork largely substituted for the need for understanding (…) subjects” (2015: 65). The contemporary power of bureaucrats often involves an assumption of total knowledge (articulated, e.g. in Foucault’s work). Graeber, however, disagrees: “situations of structural violence invariably produce extremely lopsided structures of imaginative identitification” (69): rulers have no clue about who and what their subjects are, what it is they do, what they attach importance to, how they live. The schematization and simplification of bureaucracy serve as a substitute for intimate and experience-based knowledge, but evidently fail to match up to that.
  2. A decent amount of applied-linguistic work, notably on bureaucratic procedures such as asylum applications, shows how transnational subjects, often carrying the traces of a checkered diasporic biography, are nonetheless caught in administrative templates in which their “origins” are determined on the basis of imaginations of nation-state regimes of bureaucratic identity and on “modernist” theories of language (cf. Maryns 2006; Blommaert 2001, 2009; Jacquemet 2015). Concretely: if applicants’ claims as to origin (being from country X) are being disputed, knowledge of the official, national languages of Country X is used as a definitive test. If one fails this criterium, asylum is being denied. The same happens whenever an applicant provides discourse which is sensed to violate the rules of denotational purity: whenever s/he produces contradictions, silences, a muddled chronology or a lack (or overload) of detail, the applicant is judged to be untrustworthy and the success of his/her application is jeopardized.

The “lopsided structures of imaginative identitification” described by Graeber, we can see, in actual fact assume the shape of anachronisms: schemes of social imagination, and thus of patterns of meaning-making,  perhaps valid in an earlier stage of development, but not adjusted to recent changes and thus inadequate to do justice to the phenomenology of present cases. At the same time, these obsolete schemata are strongly believed to have an unshakeable, persistent relevance as a rationality of administrative information-organization, and are enforced from within that rationality. Thus, an important part of contemporary institutional power is based on anachronisms.

Anachronisms are, of course, an inevitable feature of social change, and we know that governmentality – the logic of institutional bureaucracy and governance – is widely characterized by inertia. It represents a segment of society which develops more slowly than the segments it is supposed to deal with. The gap between the phenomena to be addressed, and the schemata by means they are addressed, is a grey zone of uncertain understanding and often arbitrary judgment – and thus, increasingly, of miscarriage of justice and of litigation.

In terms of research, such anachronistic gaps offer a very rich site for investigating social change itself. It is based on the general image of social change described elsewhere: an image of different layers developing at different speeds. The different speeds manifest themselves in actual, situated cases of misunderstanding (or rather: the incapacity for understanding) and/or of experienced injustice.

The awareness of anachronisms is nothing new, needless to say. Durkheim’s own efforts, we have seen, were grounded in his convicition that “society” had not been adjusted to an important range of innovations caused by the industrialization and urbanization of France. Similar views, of an old social order being crushed under the weight of a new one, are widespread in the sociological literature. What this theory of anachronisms as power now offers, is accuracy. When earlier generations saw “society” being ill addapted to innovation, they couldn’t possibly mean all of society, for the parts that had been innovated were also very much part of that society. What we can contribute, therefore, is a highly precise focus when we look at such phenomena. The anachronisms are particular modes of organizing social interaction through specific patterns of meaning-making: categorization, the connection of different phenomena, objects or persons in specific sets of relationships to each others (as when an asylum seeker is brought in a certain relationship with national languages in determining his/her origins), patterns of argumentation and the ways in which we attribute judgments of persuasiveness to certain such patterns. Our theory enables us to look for very precise objects of analysis that can document change and the anchronistic effects that accompany it.

Evidently, the internet as a technology that has brought substantial innovation to the modes of social interaction now common around the world, is prone to such anachronisms. It is a segment of contemporary social life that develops at very high speed, while our modes of meaning-making are slow to be synchronized. Thus, we talk about, and in, new modes of internet communication very much in ways reflecting an pre-internet complex of social relationships.

A very clear example of this is the fact that Facebook, the largest social media platform in the world founded in 2004, uses one of the oldest and most primitive terms in the vocabulary for human relationships as its core tool: “friends”. Evidently, Facebook “friends” are not necessarily coterminous with offline friends. Facebook also uses a similarly ancient and primitive term to describe the most common interaction function on its platform: “like”. And evidently, this “like” function covers a very broad and extraordinarily heterogeneous range of actual meanings. No-one needs to actually like an update in order to “like” it, and no-one needs to be an actual friend in order to become a Facebook “friend” (which is why s/he can be easily and swiftly “defriended” whenever differences of opinion arise).

Those are of course innocent phenomena, merely indexing the anachronistic gaps caused by developments in social media. Less innocent, but very difficult to pinpoint, are the effects of some of the organizing principles behind social media: the algorithmic engines used by e.g. Google and Facebook to bring people, messages and zones of social activity together on the basis of aggregations of huge amounts of data and metadata generated by users. These algorithms belong to the world’s best-kept industrial secrets, and the assumptions on which they are based can, consequently, not be directly researched. But some of their effects are known.

All of us, I am sure, have at times error-clicked some advertisement on a social media page – let’s say, an advertisement for the newest model of urban SUV by Peugeot. All of us must have noticed how in the days following that erroneous click, multiple advertisements for cars appear on almost any page we open, usually cars in the same price range as the Peugeot we error-clicked. Less visible, perhaps, is the fact that in our social media newsfeeds, we are likely to encounter more people who recently clicked such advertisements in the days following our error-click, most likely people from our contacts network and people in the same geographical area as us. And also less visible, perhaps, is the fact that our perceived interest in cars of a certain brand and price range will be correlated with other data we produce through our social media usage – other products we express an interest in, other aspects of lifestyle, other persons, perhaps political views or preferences for certain sports or sports teams – all of this resulting in a permanently updated “algorithmic identity”, of certain interest for marketing and security professionals, over which we ourselves do not have any control, let alone agency.

Altough we can, as I said, gauge these procedures from a distance only, we can infer from what we know that these algorithms are anachronisms too. They are overwhelmingly linear and reductionist: linear, for clicking an item is interpreted as necessarily rational and deliberate – the mind-reading procedures of the algorithm exclude the possibility that we clicked the button by acccident. And reductionist in the sense that clicks are seen as inspired by very specific forms of interest in the thing we clicked – an interest, for instance in buying that object rather than to just admire it or confirm our opinion that such things are absurdly expensive.

The algorithmic identities thus ascribed to us may be light years removed from the actual motives driving our social conduct and from the ways in which we see ourselves. Well known, for instance, is that at a certain time when terrorism alert worldwide was red-hot, googling for information on pressure cookers was algorithmically flagged as suspicious because these mundane receptacles happened to be widely used in manufacturing home-made explosive devices. Which is an activity performed, fortunately, by very few individuals; but in order to locate these individuals, a great many more must have come under close scrutiny by security and intelligence officials – for no reason other than, perhaps, they contemplated buying a very nice pressure cooker so as to boost the quality of their bowl of evening soup.

Patterns of human interaction and meaning-making are the most sensitive indicators of social change – every neologism in our everyday language usage demonstrates this. If we wish to understand the fine grain of social change, close attention to these patterns is therefore sure to offer far more analytical purchase than almost any other aspect of social life. Power, too, can be investigated by looking at the anachronisms characterizing patterns of interaction and meaning-making deployed in governance; it can be looked at in very great detail.

References

Blommaert, Jan (2001) Investigating narrative inequality: African asylum seekers’ stories in Belgium. Discourse & Society 12/4: 413-449

Blommaert, Jan (2009) Language, Asylum and the National Order. Current Anthropology 50/4: 415-445.

Graeber, David (2015) The Utopia of Rules: On technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Jacquemet, Marco (2015) Asylum and superdiversity: The search for denotational accuracy during asylum hearings. Language & Communication 44: 72-81.

Maryns, Katrijn (2006) The Asylum Speaker: Language in the Belgian Asylum Procedure. London: Routledge.

 

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