Why has Cultural Marxism become the enemy?

Dorotheenst_Friedhof_Marcuse

Jan Blommaert

In the colossal manifesto Anders Behring Breivik wrote before killing sixty-plus members of a Norwegian social-democratic youth organization in 2011, “Cultural Marxists” are a prominent category of “traitors”. It is due to the Quisling-esque sellout to the enemy by this overrepresented elite that Europe is now threatened by a genocidal Islamic Jihad, to be perpetrated by the millions of Muslims who immigrated into European countries – so it reads. Consequently, they deserve the death penalty, and Breivik executed more than sixty of them.

Cultural Marxism: the monster

Admittedly, Breivik was an eccentric and a freak even by the standards of ultra-radical European nationalists. But the logic of his ideological constructions is more widely shared and features as a template for fractions of the New Right in Europe and beyond. And the phrase “Cultural Marxism”, still rather marginal in 2011, has in the meantime become a stock term in political debate and in neoconservative writings, and it has precisely the meaning it had in Breivik’s manifesto. In the words of an American organization called “Western Mastery”,

Cultural Marxism has become the cultural branch of globalism. The enormous impact of this ideology on Western culture cannot be understated. It has effectively demolished societal structures and propagated cultural perversion. It has created a society that is racially mixed but extremely politically divided, sexually promiscuous, abrasive, hedonistic, and flat-out bizarre.”

So: what is this monster? And why has it become such an enemy of the Right?

Silly old Marcuse

When Cultural Marxism is described in such writings (and Breivik’s manifesto can serve as an example once more), fingers are pointed in two directions: to Antonio Gramsci and to the Frankfurt School. While Gramsci’s role is somewhat ambivalent – he is implicitly hailed as the inventor of metapolitics, and his strategies have been widely adopted in conservative and New Right politics – the Frankfurt School is usually presented as guilty of a long list of charges. It was the Marxist approach to mass culture developed by Adorno that provoked the “cultural perversion” mentioned in the fragment above, because Adorno exposed the bourgeois foundations of what we generally perceive as beauty and quality. And as for Herbert Marcuse, his “Eros and Civilization” is presented as a frontal attack on the robustly patriarchal and heterosexual Western sexual order, and the harbinger of the “sexually promiscuous, abrasive, hedonistic and flat-out bizarre” characteristics of contemporary Western social life – where abortion, divorce, and equal rights for LGBT people are legally inscribed in the mainstream. Marcuse destroyed (single-handedly, it seems) the age-old structures of authority in family life, in the system of education, in sexual partnership, and he really is the bad guy in stories of this kind. The more since he apparently had an “enormous impact on Western culture”.

One could, of course, spend ages offering factual refutations of almost everything said and written about this representation of “Cultural Marxism” and its enormous influence. But conspiracy theories, even when dressed up in the fancy clothes of academic discourse, are “reasonable” but not rational, and even require an outright disqualification of rationality as the foundation of their plausibility. Even so, Marcuse and his fellow Marxists definitely receive way too much credit for the perceived decay of sexual morals and patriarchal structures. It would be quite “reasonable” for those who blame Cultural Marxism to simply Google “Benjamin Spock” and the “Kinsey Reports” – American sources firmly grounded in the Liberal tradition (not that of Marx), and arguably vastly more influential in the post WW2 Western world than the works of Adorno and Marcuse. Blaming the latter for causing everything that is detested by neoconservatives is a clear case of convenient overkill. And now we can move on to more serious issues.

The cultural branch of globalism

In his address to the UN General Assembly in late September 2018, President Trump declared “the end of the ideology of globalism” and welcomed the “doctrine of patriotism” – a doctrine of “mind your own business”. I’ll return to his interesting choice of words in a moment; for now we can observe that it is exactly this element – the rejection of globalism – that unites Breivik and Trump, Orban and Le Pen, Brexit and Wilders. Globalism is the real enemy, for it presupposes a degree of democratic egalitarianism (the liberty and fraternity of the French Republic and the “all men are born equal” of the American one). And it comes with things such as immigration and sociocultural and political diversity, solidarity with people elsewhere in the world, respect for transnational agreements and loyalty in international cooperation in systems such as that of the EU, the UN and NATO. Taken together, the term “globalism” is the umbrella for everything that is wrong in the eyes of the actors just listed. And all of them militantly promote “patriotism” and its associated lexical field: “nationalism”, “sovereignty”, “independence” and “liberty”.

Trump interestingly qualifies globalism as an “ideology”, and he uses the latter term here as “false consciousness”, as a flawed and distorted representation of reality propagated by ideologues. Ideology, when used in this sense, opens a frame in which terms such as “brainwashing”, “thought control”, “propaganda” and, more recently, “political correctness” co-occur. And here, of course, we encounter the Cultural Marxists once more.

In Breivik’s manifesto, the term Cultural Marxists is very often accompanied by and equated with “Leftists” (of course), with “multiculturalists” and, curiously, “feminists”. Who is guilty of allowing these millions of Jihadists-in-spe into our countries? Yes, the Cultural Marxists are, for it is their “enormous influence” that spawned feminism, which then, in turn (due to, one can read, the softer side of femininity), has made our societies weaker and less confident. And Cultural Marxism is, in itself, a “multiculturalist” project in which the venerable traditions and canons of our Western cultures are critically questioned, deconstructed, ridiculed and denied the solid superiority they used to have. Cultural Marxists, and by extension the entire Left, are in essence postmodern “relativists” (another bad word in these kinds of discourse universe), and their relativism has led to the present threat of cultural, political, and ultimately physical genocide. They have successfully detached the people from their sociocultural roots, and this is a capital crime in Breivik’s eyes.

Cosmopolitan precursors

There are precedents for this, and they are not the most pleasant ones. The meanings now covered by the terms related to Cultural Marxism were at several moments in the 20th century covered by the term “cosmopolitan”. In Nazi Germany, cosmopolitanism was seen as the opposite of “German-ness”, and it was very often used to describe the supposed innate characteristics of Jewish people. The Jews were described as people lacking roots in the German “Volk” and in the Aryan race; due to that, they could not be assumed to be politically loyal to Germany and bore the suspicion of cultural and racial “pollution” – which motivated the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 as well as the “Final Solution”.

The term cosmopolitanism was also used in Nazi propaganda to connect the Jews to Bolshevism, or, slightly reformulated, the foreigner to the Left. The argument was that the Soviet revolution was led by Jews (such as Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev), and that the ensuing international work of the COMINTERN was part of a Jewish strategy to achieve global power. The Jews had invented Bolshevism so as to lure others into a mass movement which was meant to make them the rulers of the world, in short. Since the COMINTERN also influenced communist and socialist parties in Germany and elsewhere, the connection between Jews, German left-wing political opponents and foreign interference in German politics could be conveniently made. The Reichstag fire of 1933 was blamed on underground COMINTERN agents and led to the political purge of the German Left. German socialists and communists were the first inmates of Dachau. The Left, so it was explained, could never be “patriotic” because of its allegiance to political internationalism – remember “proletarians of all countries, unite!”

For Stalin, the proletarians of all countries were just fine, but those of the Soviet Union needed to be, above all, “patriotic” – loyal to Stalin and embodying the values of the Stalinist Soviet Union. In 1946, the Zhdanov Doctrine was introduced, forcing artists, intellectuals and scientists into a straitjacket of what would now be called “political correctness”. Jewish intellectuals were a particular target of the enforcement of this doctrine, for (in an echo of Nazi propaganda) the Jews were suspected of “rootless cosmopolitanism“, of a preference for influences and developments “from elsewhere” lacking (and thus betraying or sabotaging) the true character of the Soviet Union and its culture. Here, too, cosmopolitanism was seen as a threat to power, stability and sociocultural tradition, and people whose profession invites an openness to such influences (think of, precisely, artists, scientists and intellectuals) were identified as prime targets for repression. Interestingly, such targets were often accused of political alignment with … Leftism: Trotskist, anarchist or social-democratic inclinations, i.e. foreign influences at odds with the views of the Soviet, “patriotic” variety of socialism.

What’s left of Cultural Marxism?

There is, we can observe, a long discourse tradition in which the present attacks on Cultural Marxism fit. But let us now return to the 21st century.

It is hard not to see reflections of the 20th century “rootless cosmopolitan Jew” in the ways in which the American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros is represented in current political discourse in Hungary. Soros – not a man of the Left by any standards – fell out with Viktor Orban over the Hungarian stance towards refugees in 2015. What followed was an avalanche of accusations in which the “cosmopolitan” Soros was accused of interference into Hungarian domestic politics through the transnational institutions and NGO’s he controlled. In other words, his “globalism” was attacked from within the “patriotism” which is Hungary’s current doctrine, and the trigger for the attack was that prototypical 21st century icon of “globalism”: migration.

The backlash against Soros quickly focused on the usual suspects: intellectuals. The Central European University in Budapest, one of Soros’ transnational institutions described as “a bastion of Liberalism”, came under threat of closure. In the same move, the gender studies program at one of Hungary’s leading universities lost its accreditation. As explained by a leading Hungarian politician,

“We must raise awareness to the fact that these programs are doing nothing to lift up our nation. In fact, they are destroying the values-centered mode of thinking that is still present in the countries of Central Europe”.

It is highly unusual for the government of an EU member state to interfere in what used to be called “academic freedom”, and the measure met severe criticism internationally. Orban, however, remained unperturbed even when the EU threatened Hungary with unprecedented sanctions. In his view, cheered on by the likes of Nigel Farage, the EU should stop preventing its member countries from using their sovereign powers. The EU, in short, is way too “globalist” an institution, an alien body that should not take the place of “patriotic” national governments.

We can see, through this example, that the trope of the Cultural Marxists as sole, or main, agents of “globalism” is in actual fact a canard of considerable size. Soros is not a Cultural Marxist; there is, in fact, little evidence that he has ever been influenced by any form of Marxism. He is a cosmopolitan entrepreneur, though, whose reach of activities is global – but in a very different sense than the one intended by Marx and Engels when they wrote “proletarians of all countries, unite!”

The same goes for the EU, of which one can say all sorts of things but not that it is a vehicle for Cultural Marxism. I invite critical readers to, for instance, consult the texts of the EU Commission’s Horizon 2020 program and identify fundable topics in which we detect the “enormous influence” of, for instance, “Eros and Civilization”.  And as for immigration, I welcome (critically though) analyses in which the German employers‘ repeated emphasis on the necessity of a qualified labor force of refugees (including Muslims, ladies and gentlemen) to maintain the German economy’s growth rate can be turned into a Breivikian Leftist conspiracy to weaken Europe and its peoples.

Roger Scruton, in a more civilized argument than that of Breivik, might view these German employers as “xenophiles” – people who have a preference for foreign cultures and who are, vice versa, “oikophobic”, displaying an aversion of what is ours. “Xenophilia” is yet another term we can add to “globalism” and “cosmopolitism”: it’s the wrong kind of openness to the world. But the flaw in the argument is obvious: according to Scruton and his followers, xenophilia is typically a Leftist attitude, incompatible with that of, say, Orban, Farage or Baudet. Yet, it appears compatible to that of international entrepreneurs such as George Soros or the management of Siemens and Volkswagen. Or such as Angela Merkel and the EU Council, for immigration is very much regulated by governments, not by Cultural Marxists writing books and holding speeches. As advocates and agents of immigration and political Liberalism, all those unlikely xenophiles appear to stand on the left of Cultural Marxism these days.

Globalism and globalization

We can see that the argument connecting Cultural Marxism to all that is wrong with the present Western world when seen from a Right-wing or conservative viewpoint is terrifically muddled and incoherent. It’s an easy shot: connect your political opponent (the Left) to the lack of national political agency due to international collaboration systems (“globalism”) and a racialized, ethnicized or culturalized and moralized version of a national utopia (polluted by migration and threatened by Muslims, feminists and LGBT people), and you have a discursive template that enables you to explain everything while actually addressing nothing. It’s a political-discursive passe-partout, reasonable for those willing to believe it, but profoundly irrational. The latter was demonstrated by President Trump himself. Shortly after solemnly declaring the end of “globalism”, he called upon the UN Security Council (one of the great fora of post-WW2 “globalism”, if you wish) to back the US sanctions against Iran. Thus, his new doctrine can be reformulated as “mind your own business, while I’ll mind everyone else’s”, and transnationalism hasn’t yet left the building.

Part of the incoherence is the confusion of a fuzzy and highly elastic term such as “globalism” with a highly precise and concrete concept such as “globalization”. Globalization is the development of a worldwide system of cooperation, mutual influence, exchange and interaction, and it has “hard” economic and political dimensions as well as “soft” cultural and ideological ones. People such as Soros, the Siemens and Volkswagen managers and the EU leadership are very much in the business of “hard” globalization, and so is President Trump. But both dimensions cannot be easily separated, for an important part of that “hard” globalization is a global industry of “soft” cultural and ideological commodities. (This, one should note, is the decisive insight of the Frankfurt School’s Cultural Marxists).  Rupert Murdoch‘s worldwide media empire is a major actor in it, and while this empire makes quite a bit of “hard” money, it also considerably influences the “soft” cultural and ideological aspects of societies included in the empire. Mr Zuckerberg’s Facebook-Twitter-etc. industry does the same. If there is any real “enormous impact on Western culture”, it should be sought with its real actors, not with those who merely analyzed it. And if we look for the “cultural branch of globalism” (or, more precisely, globalization), perhaps we should look in that direction are well.

So why is the so-called “globalism” of so-called Cultural Marxist such an enemy? Perhaps the – paradoxical – answer can be found in globalization. Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the most insightful scholars of globalization, described years ago how globalized capitalism required a multiplicity of individual states, so that unfavorable business conditions in one state could be played off against favorable ones offered by other states. Large interstate systems or agreements – think of the EU now – can be favorable for business because they shape large markets; but they can become unfavorable because they would have the power to impose and enforce constraints, regulations and restrictions across that large market. The latter tendency is what “globalism” stands for in President Trump’s speech: it’s a rejection of multilateral economic regulation, to be replaced by “patriotism” – a monopoly over regulation in one’s own country.

Wallerstein also described how, in conditions of increasing globalization, culture would become the major battlefield. It is through the use of culture as an argument that individual states can make arguments in favor of protecting their own scope of agency and refuse or minimize more far-reaching forms of transnational integration. The process is cyclical, Wallerstein argues: phases of increasing integration (and, typically, of economic growth) would be accompanied by emphases on universalism, while phases of decreasing integration (and, typically, of economic recession) would be accompanied by emphases on racism and sexism.

We are far removed here from Leftist xenophilia and oikophobia, from “globalism” versus “patriotism” and from Cultural Marxists-multiculturalists-feminists. We’re in a world here of pretty robust historical facts. I would invite people to, at least, explore them, for looking at the hard facts of globalization and its effects can be massively helpful in addressing the catastrophically twisted ideas of people such as Breivik.

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Ergo: exploring the world of alternative facts

Capture Conway

Jan Blommaert

This short note is part of the Online with Garfinkel project.

It’s late January 2017. Donald Trump had just been inaugurated, and his Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in his first press briefing, had referred to record numbers of spectators at the event. This claim was swiftly and conclusively debunked. NBC submitted this “demonstrable falsehood” to senior White House staff member Kellyanne Conway, and her reply became the stuff of legends. According to Conway, Spicer had merely offered alternative facts, not falsehoods. This statement marked the beginning of what has, in the meantime, become an institutional discourse tradition: confrontational debates over the truth, over fake news, over what constitutes reality-as-we-know-it.

For many, the very term “alternative facts” is an oxymoron, since facts are absolute. Either things are facts, or they are not, and relativism when it comes to factuality runs counter to most of our cultural assumptions about what constitutes knowledge and truth. So here is the question: how did Conway come up with this oxymoron? And how come people believe such things?

Rational versus reasonable

Part of the answer is general, another part is specific. Let me start with the general part. Garfinkel and other interactionists – think of Everett C. Hughes, Aaron Cicourel and Erving Goffman – will be useful in formulating this general part.

The point of departure is a fundamental assumption used in ethnomethodology and related branches of interactionism: in their everyday conduct, people continuously try to make sense of what goes on around them, working from details and singular events towards larger frames in which such details and events can be made to fit and become meaningful, recognizable as instances of social order. We are sense-making creatures seeking coherence – that is the summary of this assumption. We seek such coherence by trying to fit small things into bigger frames. And in thus seeking coherence, we are reasonable. This latter term, however, demands utmost precision and clarity.

First, being reasonable should be distinguished from being rational. In fact, we will see below how critical this distinction is theoretically as well as in the political, ideological and sociocultural practices I shall mention later.

Being rational is the form of orientation to knowledge and truth we have inherited from Enlightenment and modern science: it stands for a “facts only” approach and for strictly logical forms of argument in which disciplined rules of hypothesis-building and evidence support are being employed in explaining issues or answering questions. Such answers are conclusive and yield facts, the status of which is absolute. This rational orientation to knowledge comes with an attitude we call “objectivity”, with a degree of detachment and disinterestedness in making arguments. In our culture, it is widely seen and institutionally embedded as a superior orientation to knowledge (which is why Habermas, for instance, saw it as the key to the construction of a healthy democratic public sphere). Facts, rationally established, are also disembodied items, not tied to people or communities but transcending them. Facts are usually “hard”.

Being reasonable is a much less precise orientation to knowledge, and – not to put too fine a point on it – “reasonable” stands for “credible”, something we and our interacting others are ready to accept as true, correct, valid, and to which we are ready to be held accountable. It is undoubtedly a form of reasoning in which explanations are offered, but it does not rely on a codex of disciplined and disciplinary rules. Garfinkel coined the term “ethno-methods” to denote such forms of being reasonable: people in their everyday lives build and use “theories” of how things are and should be, and these theories structure their conduct and interactions with others. Such theories are “subjective” and often irrational, even if they can be experienced as unshakably true, as “visibly rational” (to quote Garfinkel). Culturally, however, they are perceived as inferior to rational orientations towards knowledge: they are the stuff of “folk” theorizing, “opinion” and “common sense”. This is “soft” stuff.

It is important to realize that both orientations to knowledge, the rational as well as the reasonable, share crucial features. Both are ways of making sense of reality-as-it-occurs-to-us, and both do so by establishing explanatory patterns we call ergoic – from Latin “ergo”, meaning “because” or “therefore”. Ergoic patterns are patterns of explanation in which small things – evidence – are explained in terms of bigger and more general propositions – theory. We observe a phenomenon or event, and it can be explained as related to a larger and more general pattern: it is what it is because (ergo) it fits into the larger pattern.The difference between both orientations to knowledge is in how ergoic patterns can be and are being made, the conditions under which ergoic patterns are being ratified: strict  rules of method apply to rational orientations, while such rules are absent (or at least hugely less rigorous) in reasonable orientations.

As Garfinkel and others explained at length, we are reasonable most of the time and rational, in the sense specified earlier, whenever we feel we need to be. Being rational, one could say, is a historically specialized form of being reasonable; the fact that we judge it to be the superior orientation to knowledge does not automatically make it into the most widely practiced one. After all, Mr. Spock came from another planet.

This is the point where we can become more specific and return to Mrs. Conway’s world of alternative facts.

Making the rational unreasonable

Mrs. Conway used her notion of alternative facts as a rebuttal of what the NBC anchor submitted to her as “demonstrable falsehoods” – the ridiculously inflated numbers of spectators at Trump’s inauguration. The NBC anchor, we can see, made his claim from within a rational orientation to knowledge. Facts are facts; no bargaining can be admitted when such facts are “demonstrably” established, and other accounts are in the same move conclusively and in absolute terms established as non-facts, as fiction. No two ways about it: it’s about proof, not about belief.

Mrs. Conway’s baffling reply (obviously irritating the NBC anchor) marked a moment in a political evolution in the US, the origins of which are older and instances of which more widely disseminated. Her statement marked the moment when that evolution became institutionalized, when it became the voice of the White House. And the evolution it marked is the rise of New Right-wing metapolitics. In what follows, I will describe four crucial features of such metapolitics.

1. Disqualify the rational

The first feature is the consistent disqualification of the rational as the superior orientation towards knowledge. This is done by a systematic denial of the sociocultural connotations we attribute to the rational: its status as objective, disinterested, detached voice serving as a critical instrument for democratic political systems. These connotations are replaced by their exact opposite: a conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory can be quickly summarized. Rational “facts” are a tool of oppression, a creation of a Left-wing elite (sometimes called “cultural Marxists”) aimed at suppressing and dismissing – here it comes – alternative facts. These alternative facts are experienced by “ordinary people”. But they never make it to the headlines of the mass media, the textbooks used in training university students, or policy papers, since the media, the world of expertise and the major political instruments are all in the hands of this over-represented “Left-wing” elite. Rational facts are, consequently, lies maliciously spread by these elite actors, while the facts experienced by “ordinary people” are ridiculed, their reality dismissed as fiction.

Consequently, it is not those who are officially licensed to be rational, define facts and non-facts, and speak the truth who should be listened to. Quite the contrary: the truth is in our hands, and we are those who are truly rational.

Capture Truth

Another convenient consequence of this conspiracy theory is that absence or scarcity of evidence does not cripple one’s version of the truth – it confirms it, since facts are deliberately withheld from the “ordinary people”. Similarly, arguments are immune to rebuttals using rational, “objective” and “hard” facts, since such facts are … deliberately constructed lies, attempts at thought control or brainwashing, or political correctness.

The connection between democracy and the rational orientation to knowledge, inherited from Enlightenment and institutionalized in education, media and politics, has been disqualified. In its stead, the reasonable orientation to knowledge moves towards the center of what is seen as a democratic system. It moves from “soft” to “hard”, to something unshakable.

To this disqualification of what we can call “institutional” rationality, another extremely powerful feature needs to be added.

2. Moralize the truth

We have already seen how the disqualification of rational orientations to knowledge included a focus on the actors: “facts” were to be dismissed because they were produced by the wrong people. The disembodied nature of rational facts, thus, is replaced by a profound and analytically crucial merger of knowledge, person, and morality. The truth, so it is claimed, is in the hands of honest, decent people. The truth, in other words, is no longer lodged in “objective” facts, the status of which cannot be challenged in random ways. It is lodged in concrete people who embody the right moral values. The truth becomes a matter of identity.

Of course, the truth is and has always been a profoundly moralized concept, which is why our vocabulary of terms for handling the truth is deeply moral in nature and projects moralized identities upon people. When we speak the truth we are “honest”, “sincere”, “reliable”, “truthful” and so on; when we don’t we are “liars”, “dishonest”, “untrustworthy”, “false”, “corrupt” and so forth. A term such as “fake news”, consequently, is not just a judgment of a particular chunk of knowledge; it includes a moral judgment of its actors, of those who produce, believe and circulate it.

Capture dishonesty

When the truth is moralized, we are moralized, and so are our actions. When we wage a struggle, the struggle is not a vulgar one – for power or money – but a struggle for values. After all, we are fighting for the truth, for a society governed by the truth. Our struggle, thus, demands all that is attached to moral greatness: courage, determination, sacrifice, discipline, persistence. Which is why such struggles are often imagined not merely as wars but as crusades.

Capture crusade

Such imagined crusades can take ludic shapes, as in the meme just shown. But they can also be deadly serious, as in the case of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

Capture Breivik crusade

Breivik, as we know, described a new Knights Templar order in his long manifesto, reaching back to the early crusades. And he assassinated about 70 “liars” and “traitors”: members of a social-democratic youth movement in Norway. Crusades are real.

3. Do the ergoic work

We have seen earlier that ergoic patterns are at the core of what “being reasonable” actually means; we have also seen that it consists in relating small things – incidents, events, phenomena, occurrences – to larger patterns, to a “theory”.

This theory, we also saw, does not require the disciplined methodical underpinning of a rational theory. Absence of evidence simply constitutes proof of its validity; scarcity or falseness of evidence as well. What is required is (a) a Grand Narrative and (b) some evidence. A widespread Grand Narrative is that of Islam as a hostile religion, and of Muslims as engaged in a Jihad against “us”. This highly elastic proposition is directly connected to another very flexible theme: immigration. Immigration is always “mass importation” of “potentially dangerous enemies” who will eventually exterminate the populations of the Christian West.

Capture Wilders

(Translation: Fight with me… MORE MORE MORE: truth; no more political correctness; freedom of speech, our highest good; renewed sovereignty, no more EU-puppet; closed borders, no more Muslim migrants. LESS LESS LESS: ban Islam, a political ideology of conquest; get rid of the Qur’an, a book replete with hatred towards you; close al mosques, centers for jihadists; no more Islamic schools, poisoning. A Free Netherlands, Our Netherlands, Vote PVV, Party of Freedom)

We shall all perish because of the complicity of our leading Left-wing elites, who are actually (and especially through transnational systems of governance such as the EU, the UN or NATO) conspiring with the Arabs against us, in attempts to Islamize Europe. These elites, therefore, are our enemies. We shall perish through genocidal Jihad, and/or through demographic genocide – the gradual but steady increase of Muslim populations in the West, eventually turning “us” into a minority.

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Evidence for this Grand Narrative can be found in the smallest anecdotes relating to Muslim intolerance, aggression or cultural-religious assertiveness: women wearing the hijab, halal food in mainstream supermarkets, the use of Arabic as a publicly displayed language, Muslims complaining about violations of their rights and freedom of religion, Muslims attacking or verbally abusing non-Muslims, Western politicians meeting their Middle-Eastern counterparts or giving speeches at Muslim religious events (often qualified as soumission, following the title of a novel by Houellebecq) – there is no limit to what can be used as “facts” to prove the theory, and if there is a shortage of such facts, they can be manufactured.  Here is a short list of such hoaxes retweeted by Donald Trump.

Capture Trump retweets

The latter takes us to the fourth and final feature.

4. Use all the affordances of social media

Social media are excellent platforms for this kind of ergoic work. The economy of circulation on social media is characterized by speed, frequency and intensity, and quick ergoic patterns can be established by exploiting these affordances through short, often visual (or visually-supported), messages such as memes or gifs, or through the crisp and concise reiteration of the Grand Narrative as shown in some examples above. Veritable saturation bombardments can be performed this way.

Here are some examples, and note the ergoic patterns we observe in them.

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Capture Allahu meme

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The world of Ergo-ism.

Such ergoic patterns constitute “alternative facts”. They form a self-contained “truth”, immune to any form of factual refutation, for such refutations are – within this world of alternative facts – seen as conclusive evidence of the truth. Grounded in everyday forms of reasoning and sense-making, they have explanatory power, they create coherence in how people view their world, and they define individual and group identities. Supported by an infrastructure of social media offering unique affordances tailor-made for such quick-and-dirty explanations, they become extraordinarily persuasive – persuasive enough to turn electorates toward candidates and parties embodying the moralized “true” truth.

We live in a world where such ergo-ism defines the codes and standards of mass information and public debate. Whether this development is likely to make us “great again” is highly questionable. It is the topic of intense debate as well. And one element in such debates is inevitable: it is insufficient to simply disqualify such forms of ergoic work as a new form of obscurantism, as an endless supply of nonsense and unbelievable inferential quantum-leaps. We are facing here the rationality of our times. or better: the rationalities of our times, for there are multiple rationalities competing in the public sphere and reshaping what we used to call Modernity. Yes, the very term “alternative facts” could qualify as the ultimate marker of post-Modernity, since it turns something absolute – the rational orientation to knowledge – into a relative thing co-existing alongside a range of alternative ones. But even when we admit that we should address the puzzling moral absolutism with which such alternative versions are held to be the one-and-only truth. This is, if anything, an absolutist relativism – in itself quite an unbelievable thing.

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Did anything happen in May 68?

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Jan Blommaert

Half a century ago, a wave of revolt hit countries as far apart as Japan and Czechoslovakia, Germany and the US, Mexico and France. Certainly due to its high profile around the Parisian Quartier Latin, where students confronted the regime of the legendary General De Gaulle during riots in May and June of that year, the events were nicknamed “May 68”.  And under that name, the events became the object of heated controversy. The 50th anniversary of May 68 will be no exception to that.

Nothing has happened

As we know, May 68 in France ended when De Gaulle rallied his supporters and won the elections of June 1968 by a landslide. And it was the great French conservative thinker Raymond Aron who proclaimed shortly after the end of the revolt that rien ne s’est passé – nothing really happened in May 68. The order of De Gaulle’s republic had been restored, after all, and the bourgeoisie as well as the police state that were the joint targets of the revolt were still firmly in power.

While this version of the events became mainstream, another one was addded to this. May 68, claimed the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy, was a moral and culturalcrisis, a vague counterculture with unspecified values, nothing more. It was a revolt against the cultural patriarchism, the traditional (masculine) structures of authority and the puritan morality of a conservative society, and it was above all a movement of individual empowerment and liberation. Young kids just wanted to be free, free to listen to rock music, grow their hair and wear blue jeans, make love not war, and tell their fathers to mind their own business.

This, in the eyes of more radically conservative thinkers, had led to a moral anarchy, a radical relativism of identities, values and norms and an over-the-top rejection of what was stable, good and true. May 68 has since become a bête noire for the New Right, and for half a century now it has been consistently blamed for almost everything that went wrong in Western societies since the 1960s: immigration and multiculturalism, feminism, sexual promiscuity, the liberal use of drugs, the normalization of homosexuality, the attacks on what is seen as robust masculinity – in short, May 68 destroyed all that was normal in societies such as ours. But other than that, nothing had really happened. Nothing politically at least.

May 68 was a decade long

Well, I’m not so sure about that, because in such acccounts of what happened in May 68 only a fraction of the events is discussed. A decade of worldwide turmoil – the 1960s – is reduced to a couple of weeks in which students (and only students) threw bricks at the police and painted funny slogans on the walls of their university halls. Why they did that, and why in so many places and in this way, is conveniently deleted from the narrative. So let us look at some elements that surrounded May 68. We shall see that it was actually a decade long.

The students did not just paint funny slogans on walls; they openly, loudly and relentlessly criticized the system of power characterizing their societies: the power incorporated by De Gaulle in France, Johnson and Nixon in the US and the Communist Party in Prague. In all of these cases, the power regime was connected – openly, loudly and relentlessly – with the Cold War which had led to increasing militarization and more agressive policing, with millions of young men drafted into national military service on their respective sides of the Cold War divide, and with powerfully developed surveillance and repression resources aimed at (even moderate) public dissidence. In the West and elsewhere, the Vietnam war became the iconic object of protest; but it wasn’t the only issue.

Vietnam became iconic because it was part of the huge wave of decolonization that characterized the 1960s, and because it showed how decolonization had been swept up in the power play of the Cold War. The 1960s started with Fidel Castro proclaiming the end of US imperialism in Cuba, soon followed by the failed US-backed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs, and by the Cuban Missile Crisis that rendered the possibility of a nuclear apocalyps part palpable everywhere. The colonial empires were rapidly replaced by independent states, the leaders of which often proved reluctant to enter into neocolonial relations with their former rulers. Mao Zedong theorized the “Third World” as a catchword to define the refusal of newly independent states to choose sides in the Cold War; the US intervention in Vietnam, as well as several other interventions against the rulers of the newly independent states, proved that the the Cold War protagonists didn’t like such forms of non-alignment. This kind of intervention was called imperialism by the May 68 activists, and they rejected it. In their eyes, alternative (read: socialist) roads to development and sovereignty should be, at least, allowed.

They also rejected it because the Cold War overseas imperialism was mirrored by what they identified as the return of “fascism” at home. The Cold War imposed anticommunism as a state doctrine in all NATO member states, and this had concrete consequences. It meant, for instance, that after the post-War “denazification” purges, military and security staff recruitment in countries such as Germany and France now displayed a preference for people with strong right-wing sympathies (including actual ex-nazis and collaborators) over people favoring socialism or communism. Maurice Papon, the powerful police prefect of Paris in the first half of the 1960s, was such a former collaborator, but it took until 1981 before he was convicted for direct involvement in the death of Jewish subjects under the Vichy regime.

With chiefs such as Papon, the police assumed the shape of a military and intelligence outfit outspokenly aimed at crushing any form of action that could be seen as pro-Soviet, however far-fetched. In other countries, similar processes occurred, and the targets of heavy-handed police interventions often included trade unions and striking workers, suspected of (directly or indirectly) assisting the socialist cause and destabilizing society. In the UK, an Emergency Powers Act was introduced in 1964; in Germany, similar laws were voted in 1968 to quell the widespread political and labor protests. The general current was to increase the power of the forces of order while reducing the civil rights of citizens (certainly when they were organized), and to increase the use of police violence in cases of unrest. The 1960s ended with TV-footage of Chicago police forces brutally beating young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and with National Guardsmen shooting at students on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio, killing four.

TV-footage in that decade also included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shooting of student leader Rüdi Dutschke in Germany and of two miners during a strike in Belgium, the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach and several Vietnamese Buddhist monks, and endless reports on bombings by American B52s in North Vietnam. The entire decade was one of unrest, large-scale dissidence and extreme violence. May 1968 was one moment in which much of this crystallized into a remarkable form of protest and rebellion, characterized by alliances between students and workers, men and women, urban and rural activists, black and white ones, intellectuals, artists, journalists, workers and lay people.

Everyone saw May 68

The 1960s ended also with another piece of historic TV-footage, seen across the world: the landing on the moon. And here is one dimension we should not overlook: the 1960s were the decade of television, of a new global mass media culture. And this, too, had an impact. TV-sets became a normal item in the homes of middle class and working class people alike all over the West, and with literacy levels rising, newspapers and magazines thrived. Jointly, the expansion of the new mass media created a globalized scale of image and content distribution which conclusively transformed the culture of the 20th century. Nothing remained outside the scope of the media now, even if it came from the exotic peripheries or from otherwise obscure corners of the world.

In the 1960s, not just the Beatles became global icons. Mao, Castro, Che, Nehru, Nasser, the Shah and the Negus, Nkrumah, Boumedienne and Kenyatta also rose to stardom. So did the North Vietnamese warriors Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and so did the Czech anti-Soviet activists Jan Palach and Alexander Dubchek; so too did Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Among the most iconic images of the decade is that of the black US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in antiracist protest during the medals ceremony at the Mexico 68 Olympic Games. In the small Belgian village where I spent my childhood, my primary school teacher pinned the photo, cut from the local newspaper, on the wall of our classroom; it was there for months.

Vietnam and the Cold War imperialism it bespoke became a worldwide focus of protest and mass mobilization not just because the Cold War affected (and infected) large parts of the world. It became iconic because these parts of the world were now effectively connected by streams of media information and imageries. Vietnam was the first truly global mediatized war, which is why it became the object of effectively globalized protest and resistance and why such protest assumed similar shapes in very different places. Vietnam was the moment when the Cold War became a globalized object of reflection, analysis and popular imagination, affecting global as well as local issues. “Vietnam is in our factories” was a popular slogan among the French workers during the enormous strike that accompanied the student protests in May 68.

May 68, consequently, was a global mediatized event as well – perhaps the very first globally shown instance of popular mass protest in the West, and like Vietnam, a moment in which previously separate dots were connected. The protests were not parochial; people openly, loudly and relentlessly proclaimed international solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, in the factories as well as in the ex-colonies and in the jungles of Vietnam, with women, immigrants and the victims of institutional racism in South Africa and the US. Intellectually, the events accelerated the recognition of voices “from below” or “from the margins” (advocated by Sartre, but also by historians such as E.P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Carlo Ginzburg and sociologists such as Howard Becker). It also provoked a new critical study of power – with Foucault as its main architect – and it kickstarted the study of globalization processes (think of Immanuel Wallerstein) and worldwide structural inequalities (André Gunder Frank, for instance). It also laid the foundations for the international peace movement, the movement against nuclear weapons and movements for sustainable development and environmental awareness. In many ways, the world as we presently know it was shaped in the late 1960s. The effect of May 68 was massive, and it was above anything else, political.

Everything happened in May 68

The world as we presently know it is of course largely neoliberal and conservative. And this, too, can be partly attributed to May 68. I already mentioned the conservative backlash against the events of 1968 – the reduction of the events to a moral and cultural crisis, a loss of traditional values, a counterculture and so forth. But there is a more complex part to that story, which I can only briefly sketch here.

The focus on Vietnam in May 68, and the intellectual work that surrounded and followed it, marked the end of classical imperialism as a viable doctrine. It was effectively destroyed by the challenge of tiers-mondist (“Third-World-ist”) worldwide solidarity, framed initially by Mao Zedong’s theory of Third World non-alignment. But this challenge, in turn, caused old-style imperialism to be transformed into an amalgamation of neoliberalism and ethnocentrism. Both took another decade to enter into full force, and the end of the Cold War turned them into the cornerstones of a new world order.

Through neoliberalism, the neocolonial ties between the First and the Third Worlds could be rationalized, depoliticized and made “objective” in the form of purely economic, financial and monetary transactional relationships. At the same time, domestic social unrest could be equally turned anodyne, by reducing the political reading of class antagonisms to a depoliticized reading of balance sheets, efficiency and human resources management. The politics of inequality was converted into the economics of equal opportunities and free enterprise.

The political dimension of imperialism morphed into a heavily moralized ethnocentrism, in which “objective” racial, class and civilizational superiority was replaced by individualized, case-based judgments of moral compatibility. People in, say, Congo or Sierra Leone should no longer be seen as victims of extremely disadvantageous rates of exchange in the world markets and of exploitation by multinational corporations extracting surplus value without fair return. They were victims of corrupt leaders and warlords, and the latter – the Third World leaders – should “take responsibility” for their people’s well being. Worldwide solidarity was replaced by “we cannot solve all their problems”. And as for immigrants from such countries, they could always be accused of refusing to contribute to their country’s progress, and of not fitting in the codes of norms and values of their host societies. As Balibar and Wallerstein outlined in the early 1990s, class struggle and race theory had been replaced by softer, but equally effective discourses of cultural and moral compatibility. Similar discourses of moral and cultural compatibility can be (and are) deployed with respect to “domestic” issues of deviance and marginalization. “Hard” political analysis has been replaced by a rhetoric of blame, responsibility and character.

Raymond Aron was quite wrong in his appraisal of May 68. Those who now try to reduce its scope and impact to rock and roll, LSD, and flowers in one’s hair are quite wrong as well, as are those who rant against the “May 68 generation” as the architects of a society of hedonistic individualists devoid of any respect for values, traditions and norms. May 68 was above all else a political event in which a lot was reimagined and redefined. The worldwide protests laid bare some of the major fissures and contradictions of the post-war world; they shaped modes of globalized social, political and intellectual action that marked the end of that part of the 20th century and the beginning of the part that spilled over into the 21st century. May 68 was big, very big.

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The Corbyn spy hoax and the cycle of (fake) news

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Jan Blommaert

In mid-February 2018, the British tabloid The Sun published an article in which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was accused of having been involved in espionage activities in the 1980s. According to The Sun (and quickly endorsed by The Daily Mail), Czech archives and statements by a former Czech spy confirmed that Corbyn had repeatedly met Warsaw Pact intelligence agents and had been paid for his services. In a curious return to the days of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Sun claimed the existence of secret Stasi files, the contents of which might reveal numerous names of British traitors whose real identities, alas, “we will never know for sure”. But Corbyn? Yes, they were sure of him being a traitor to his country.

The allegations were swiftly turned into truth by hostile politicians and opinion makers. The Defence Secretary stated that Corbyn had betrayed his country, and another Cabinet member compared Corbyn to the Cold War cause célèbre Kim Philby – here is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy once again. In the overheated atmosphere of the Brexit debates in UK politics, heavy artillery is quickly and frequently used. Evidently, the issue went trending on social media and became headline news and a major commentary topic in all mass media as well.

#CorbynSmears

The allegations, however, were quickly debunked. Corbyn himself swiftly dismissed them as “a ridiculous smear” and ridiculed the tablois for “going a bit James Bond,” probably as a sign of fear for the Labour leader whose popularity is on the rise. The real James Bonds – British intelligence officers – backed him up. There was no evidence of Corbyn performing espionage duties for the Czech secret services. On social media, hashtag activism started at once using #CorbynSmears as the thematic label for three large types of actions: direct discussion (as in Figure 1), boomerang statements pointing towards other fake news stories by these tabloids (as in Figure 2), and more broadly focused political essays on the role of media in society (as in Figure 3). A highly effective campaign was waged on social media this way, marginalizing the voices supporting the tabloids and their stories.

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

Battle hashtags such as #CorbynSmears went trending as well, for several days, and while the tabloids made desperate attempts to raise the “free press” flag and extend their line of revelations, they lost the day. When the facts and the backgrounds are on your side, fact checking (or better: fact reconstruction) is a devastating weapon in social media discussions. The three genres of activity shown here shaped three interlocking frames of action: (a) demanding factual evidence for claims in direct one-on-one interaction; (b) background checks disputing the overall credibility of the tabloids, and (c) pointing to broader motives of political power and influence behind such forms of media reporting. Taken together and deployed en masse, they were highly effective in silencing the opponents in the online debates. The Corbyn supporters had shown themselves to be a formidable social media force on previous occasions; they did so once more in the spy hoax case.

The mass media (who a few days earlier carried the story as headline news) turned against the issue – now identified as fake news – with unusual vehemence. The Independent printed a razor-sharp sarcastic commentary piece including a summary of other outrageous tabloid hoaxes about Corbyn. And BBC Daily Politics anchor Andrew Neil mercilessly pummeled a Cabinet Minister on the question of whether or not Corbyn had betrayed his country, concluding “Surely the real scandal is not what Mr Corbyn has ..supposedly done but the outright lies and disinformation that you and fellow Tories are spreading – that’s the real scandal isn’t it?” The clip of this interview fragment went viral too, and in many ways functioned as a climax to the debate: if the BBC formulates the issue in such a categorical way – connecting “scandal”, “lies” and “Tories” in one sentence – then that’s it.

The cycle of fake news

The Corbyn spy hoax of course taps into the highly complex issue of fake news – perhaps the most important new theme in media culture nowadays, certainly after the exposure of the impact of media such as Breitbart News on the election victory of Donald Trump. And in connecion to this issue, the Corbyn spy hoax shows us a thing or two about what we can call the contemporary cycle of (fake) news. In a graphic form, this cycle can be represented as such (Figure 4).

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Figure 4

Three wheels are constantly turning in a validation debate, in which the tabloids and the social media do most of the work, while the mass media perform a relatively passive, responsive  but nevertheless decisive role. Debates about the validity of news items are hot and hectic in the first two media channels, and these validation debates are taken up by mass media at various stages of development. Thus, mass media very often make an item not just out of the “facts” of the case, but about the debates on the validity of these facts in other media channels.

What we observe here suggests a changed media environment in which it would be wrong to see social media as just echo chambers for what was produced in more traditional media channels. They now must be placed alongside those more traditional channels, as echo chambers, surely, but also in two other capacities: as critical producers of news in the strict sense of the term; and as the critical producers of the criteria for “real” and “fake” news. This latter capacity is what makes their position in this new media environment perhaps inevitably controversial, but nonetheless of extreme importance for understanding the present structure and dynamics of the public sphere and public opinion – a key concept for defining democracy.

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Jan Blommaert on ‘morphing’ nationalism and how language helps us to get it

Valorisation B

nationalisme_r One of the early works of Jan on nationalism (1994)

Anti-establishment, anti-immigrant and anti-EU are common messages threading together the ongoing phenomenon of the upsurge of far-right parties all over Europe. We are by now accustomed to hearing in mass media but also within academia (e.g. Bosco & Verney 2012; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2015) that the success of such political parties or extremist organizations is a direct consequence of the combined global financial and refugee crises.

In the southern fringe of the continent, a small country seems to epitomize the problem with Europe. I happen to come from that country, Greece, and spent two and a half months this year doing ethnographic research on the field with members of the currently third biggest Greek political party, Golden Dawn.

GD rally getty Golden Dawn rally in Athens

‘Laos, Stratos, Ethinkismos’ (meaning “People, army, nationalism”) ‘Antepithesi, Ethinki antistasi’ (meaning “Counter attack, National resistance”) or…

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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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TINA undressed 2: History without agency

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Jan Blommaert 

This morning, ING Bank announced a worldwide restructuration in which 7,000 jobs will be cut, about half of which in its Belgian branch. The restructuration did not come as a surprise to many employees and observers, in spite of ING having done not too badly at all – the last decade saw a net profit of around 11 billion Euro, with over 7 billion in dividend, and a 30% increase in the CEO’s remuneration last year. So it is not that the bank is on the brink of collapse or that its shares are nosediving. Thus, why this range of deep-cutting measures?

ING communicated its decision in a statement called “Accelerating Think Forward“. The restructuration is part of a strategy implemented since 2014 (“Think Forward”), which now demands acceleration, more specifically “a number of initiatives to further improve the customer experience, further grow primary customers and lending, and increase efficiency”. The bank has done quite well, as we have seen. However, says CEO Ralph Hamers, “[w]e also promised to keep getting better and that is exactly what today’s steps are aimed at. Our recent successes allow us to do so from a position of strength.”

The past is, thus, just the take-off for the future. This future is by definition not known. But nevertheless, ING reads the signs:

“Customers are increasingly digital and bank with us more and more through mobile devices. Their needs and expectations are the same, all over the world, and they expect us to adopt new technology as fast as companies in other sectors. In order to continue to lead in digital banking, we need to offer a better customer experience, that’s instant, personal, frictionless and relevant. At the same time, banks are confronted with continuous regulatory burden and a prolonged period of ultra-low interest rates. These factors put pressure on the returns which are necessary to fund growth and investments, and cover our cost of capital.”

Observe how ING suggests that the prime mover behind this plan is the customer, whose preferences, demands and expectations have shifted into a direction that demands “a better customer experience, that’s instant, personal, frictionless and relevant”. Money only appears at the very end of the statement:

“In line with our strategy, we will be introducing ING Group financial targets for 2020. We will maintain our ING Group CET1 ratio above the prevailing fully-loaded requirement, currently 12.5%, with a leverage ratio above 4%. Our target for the cost/income ratio is 50-52%. In light of the continuing regulatory uncertainty, we are not updating our RoE target (currently 10-13% of ING Bank IFRS-EU equity), but we reiterate our intention to pay a progressive dividend over time.”

Given that we are talking about a bank operating in a competitive global banking universe and owned by shareholders demanding specific levels of return on investment, it is relatively safe to suspect that the real prime mover is profit, and that the new customer experience is a means to that end.

The reversal of those two elements brings us to the TINA (There is no alternative) frame. In an earlier piece I discussed how a particular discursive use of identity forms part of the TINA frame; here we see similar things happening with history. And to summarize the point, we see how in the ING statement, a particular distinction is made between

  • history with agency, and
  • history without agency

The history-with-agency is the strategy presented by the bank. Its plan “Thinking Forward” already incorporates a clear agentive frame – it’s the bankers who think – and “accelerating” that plan is obviously also something decided more or les sovereignly by the bank’s executives. The strategy, in short, articulates how the bank intends to control a future through specific measures designed to benefit from…. a history over which they have no agency. And this history-without-agency is described in the paragraph in which the developments in customer expectations and market circumstances are given.

From a purely factual viewpoint, the bank has co-shaped all the conditions presented in that paragraph. ING customers have, for years, been pushed towards more digital and less branch-based banking activities through measures implemented by no one else but the bank (and often contested by the customers themselves). The same goes for the “regulatory context” referred to, including the “ultra-low interest rates”, which occured often both in response to existing banking problems, as well as at the request of banking lobbies. None of these forces, thus, can structly be depicted as alien, outside forces over which the bank has no control. The same counts a fortiori for the elephant in the room: profitability target setting. The shareholders are the bank, and as we have seen in the fragment above, they have received 10-13% percent “Return on Equity” – a quite extraordinary level of profit, reflecting, one could say, quite unrealistic levels of expected profit growth. And these target settings are not forced upon the bank by outside forces.

The paradox, however, is that ING presents the entire operation as a rational response – their agency – to forces of history that they can only follow, by trying to remain ahead of them. In other words: they are suggesting that they respond to historical forces by shaping them. “Sorry, but there is no other way to respond to future challenges than to create them ourselves.” This paradox is nicely woven into the delicate discourse of cause-and-effect in the statement, and this particular discursive move feeds into the TINA frame: things are what they are, there is no alternative for history than a future shaped by us. We can see this nicely in this final fragment:

“While not all plans we present today are finalized, the intended initiatives are expected to result in a reduction of ING´s workforce in Belgium by around 3,500 FTEs and by around 2,300 FTEs in the Netherlands for the years 2016-2021. These numbers include the intended move to an integrated banking platform, with the remainder of functions affected spread over intended programmes in IT, operations, Wholesale Banking and various business support functions. At the same time, we will add colleagues in parts of our business where we expect to accelerate growth given our plans to continue to attract new customers and increase lending to support the economies we are active in.”

It’s all about agency here, and incidentally the agency articulated here touches precisely those causal forces previously described as beyond the grasp of the bank – the objective directions of history in the banking world.

At the heart of TINA, there is a lie – we all know that. The lie revolves around the suggestion of non-agency, of absolute and uncontrollable actors shaping fields of action in which those using the TINA frame claim to have just minimal, responsive, and therefore rational agency. While in fact, they are the actors. In other words: they pretend to be the victims of a future they themselves are engineering. And this future is, of course, an absolute and undisputable given, to which they can only adjust their course of action.

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