How do you survive a fascist autocracy?

How to Get Rid of Autocrats

The essence of the future is this:

Everything can happen.

Viktor Orbán

The form of rule of our time is not, as people would rejoice in 1990, democracy. They are still in the majority of the 195 countries in the world, but authoritarian regimes and autocracies have clearly set the tone recently. For years, the “center left” watched helplessly as it diminished in its ability to influence and was exposed to malice and hatred, stalking and persecution. The democratic forces, often caught in hopeless competition between “liberal” and “left”, have to go on the offensive and point out what they have in common with the “right”. Autocrats and authoritarian movements have considerable popular support, but they do not have a genuine and stable majority. Their power is often based on older defects in the political system and, above all, on the fact that the wings of the opposition do not soar to common heights.

There may be an “overall ideal autocrat”, but there is no “overall ideal opposition”. Because this is not only the opposition between autocracy and democracy, but also the said rift within the “democratic camp”: everywhere, for example in the USA, it fluctuates as to whether it should propose a radically progressive counter-program or, better, create space in the middle for conservatives who have become thoughtful and for whom the authoritarian deformation goes too far. The dilemma is that adaptation is not rewarded, but that there is usually no broad basis for a radical turning point. Since majorities can be reached more with “bread and butter” concerns in the hinterland than with cultivating ideological and cultural preferences and differences in urban centers, opposition comes close to squaring the circle. Their most active forces are usually to be found in milieus against which the demagogues and tribunes can most easily mobilize resentment.

The authoritarian mass mobilization via television, the tabloid press and social media thrives on these declarations of enemy. Direct addressing from door to door and the intelligent use of social networks by and for younger target groups promise more success. Autocrats address the conformism of the "lonely mass" (David Riesman); the advantage of the opposition lies in the anchoring in the lively civil society and in the courageous change of subject to the projects that point to a better future. To do this, the torn bond between civil society and party democracy must be repaired; without such a transmission belt, left and liberal parties will hardly gain momentum, and without the march into the institutions, even the most active cannot achieve much.

In 1985, the title of a book by Jürgen Habermas, entitled “New Comprehensibility”, gave expression to the irritation of how insane coordinates that were used to domestic and foreign policy had been and how the weights had slipped into a “neoliberal authoritarianism” (Stuart Hall). Social scientists once tried to create clarity by dividing society and politics into clear four-field tables that assigned social divisions and political conflicts. Such “cleavages” (lines of conflict) ran through social and conscious situations, through values ​​and attitudes, through political orientations and party systems.

Four cross-sections in historical succession are traditional: in the epoch of nation-building the gap between the center and the periphery developed, after the wars of religion religious and secular currents faced each other, with urbanization came the gap between town and country and in the industrial age (and in the Aegis of the welfare state) dominated the conflict between capital and labor (or state vs. market). This rough typology has always ignored cultural and regional differences, but it remains recognizable in today's “disputes”: in the revolt of Catalans, Scots, Berbers and other regionalists against their central governments, in the gap between high-income urban elites and those who are “left behind” “Hinterland, in the dispute over abortion and homosexual marriage, not to be forgotten in the distribution conflict over income, work, housing, life chances and security in old age.

The party systems of western-liberal democracies are caught up in these ideological and distributional conflicts and give them a political form. But the polarity between the right and the left, which had shaped it from the early 19th century, is fading; The bold slogan "ni droite ni gauche" has been written by various social and political movements, from fascist movements in the early 20th century to the ecological movements of the 1970s and younger movement parties such as "Republique en marche". The socio-economic line of conflict remains virulent, as inequality and injustice or redistribution and solidarity continue to motivate protests and legislation. But above all the ecology movement postulates that environmental problems can neither be dealt with on the left nor on the right, and therefore settles itself "at the front", as an avant-garde in a post-industrial field of conflict that overrides the modern social contract with a "natural contract" (Michel Serres). The women's movement held a similar view, which related the left's demands for equality to the gender level, but called the entire cultural order into question with its criticism of the patriarchy. Distribution issues remain topical in the demand for equal wages for equal work, but the denial of male dominance affects the symbolic foundations of society as a whole.

So it was a good thing that modern clarity was called into question. By environmentalists and feminists new Encouraged social movements, they built one cultural Line of conflict into the scheme, which can be described with the pair of opposites “authoritarian” vs. “libertarian” (A-L). Comparative studies on changing values ​​show a worldwide increase in post-material attitudes. The right-left polarity (R-L) is therefore not a thing of the past, social equality and the welfare state are still relevant, especially in the neoliberal era. But this must now be put in relation to the dividing lines between the poles of individual freedom and traditional (state) order, ethno-nationalism and multiculturalism, secular and religious order. This results in the “confusing” configuration of intersecting lines of division and interactions, which “catch-all parties” can no longer encompass within the European party families, with which almost logically nationalistic, green and one-topic parties emerge. Conventional voters are "loyal" to the old cornerstones, otherwise there is a real political "tree-change-yourself" game.

Complexes long classified as secondary "single issues" such as environmental protection took on an eminent urgency with the explosive nature of climate change and the extinction of species, the issues of distribution - the domain of the left - relativized and aspects of "life protection" - a conservative main concern - in a different light makes appear. At the same time, with the renaissance of nationalism, ideas of racist and white superiority and reconquista programs of a Christian (Jewish) culture in conflict with Islam revived. It recently became clear that völkisch authoritarian movements are also vehement opponents of environmental and climate protection and defenders of the industrial model, which now makes green parties, at least in Germany, their main antagonists.

The generation ratio is seldom included in the architecture of the cleavage lines. Generations are the only purely temporal form of socialization that loosely connects age groups with shared experiences and expectations. Loosely, because young protest movements repeatedly opposed “the old”, but explicit youth parties (Fidezs was one ...) rarely lasted or now take on forms such as satirical and Internet parties. The youth movement Fridays for Future, which has now been ignited by the megatopic climate change and the extinction of species, will have to be paid attention and asked whether it is possibly raising a stronger generational line of conflict, the politicization and party orientation of which is open.

Where younger people largely favor environmental protection and Europeanization, anti-authoritarianism and multiculturalism, “progressive” parties are faced with the challenge of effectively bundling these attitudes and turning them into a political project “beyond right and left”. A strategy paper by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation recently recommended a “middle of the road” strategy between “Macronism” and “Corbynism” in the style of Central and Northern European parties to the particularly battered social democracy. That should not be enough to save the left in Europe (or in the USA between "Sanderism" and "Bidenism"), let alone renew it. The left thinks in terms of (re) distribution and entitlement, which in the classic welfare state were always nationally limited (and intellectually limited), as if the nation state were the end of history. It shares this narrow-mindedness with the right wing, which seeks to compensate for the actual loss of control of the nation state with extreme nationalism. And on the other side of the democratic camp, the liberals have played down social injustices as side effects of globalized economies and ignored the need for security. That, too, has greatly supported autocratic tendencies.

Ultimately, the survival of democracy (it doesn't have to be the end of history either!) Depends most on the - a strong term: Contemplation of the political right. As it was 100 years ago, it is at the turning point, at which it either slides back into open fascism or is reconciled with liberal modernism. European and some South American Christian democracies have taken such a step in response to major catastrophes. After the Second World War, mechanisms of concordance were built into the political system, which included the largest possible number of political actors. The main focus was on questions of the welfare state distribution on a national scale, which has become too narrow in view of the planetary challenges of the environmental crisis. Consensus, compromise and concordance have crumbled in the current polarization. If, as Orbán so wisely remarked, the future is open and everything is possible, then not only is the isolation and marginalization of the New Right possible, but also a new form of concordance on these planetary problems conceivable, which is long overdue and of the relevant protest movements is just so clearly demanded.

In Germany only a tiny minority declare themselves to be radical opponents of the democratic form of rule and life. But many have doubts whether the actually existing democracy still “delivers”, by which above all the routines of welfare state transfers are meant. In Germany, the overwhelming majority is convinced of the necessity and feasibility of regulated immigration and supports cultural plurality. Against this background, the AfD "actually" has no chance, its driving forces were initially a prosperity chauvinism, paired with fears of social decline in the middle class and among employees, then the force of the "refugee crisis", which was not prepared and explained and triggered a psychologically understandable alienation. The AfD established itself as a crisis profiteer who only needs to make a rebate and does not think that it has to present an "alternative".

More serious is their anchoring in East Germany and in certain regions of former industrial areas and in the "suspended" hinterland. There it is far more about an alleged or actually failed recognition of “life achievements” than about a right-wing class struggle. The rise of the AfD is halting there too, thanks to a consistent and seamless coalition quarantine and even more so by breaking the polarization and Germany in Europe finding amicable solutions to the real problems. And this, as became very clear in 2019, lies in the central position of the climate and environmental problem.

The Thunberg Effect does not consist in the fact that climate protection has become an “issue”. It has been a topic for the initiated and the attentive since the World Climate Conference in 1979 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1996, and for all of the world since the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. The effect of the civil disobedience of Fridays for Future was the urgency, the environmental policy “now really “Is awarded, on the one hand by sustained street protest, on the other hand by the tectonic shifts in the party systems. Both make it clear to the political elite that they will no longer get away with business as usual and the mere rhetorical usurpation of the “topic”. The protection of the climate and the biosphere, yes, the development of a concrete utopian nature (social) contract is the Challenge, historically in the rank of the workers' and women's movements, and it would be time for right-wing and left-wing tendencies, which bring other concerns to the fore, to understand this change.

The punch line of the resistance against the right, precisely because of the Thunberg Effect, is that it leads straight to resistance against the executives and central ideas of industrial modernity and identifies nationalist nationalists above all as the forces that oppose the due global change and that Willfully jeopardizing the life chances of people living today and future generations. For this we belong in the dock, even in the truest sense of the word.

The focus of the resistance is shifting from the (necessary!) Anti-fascism to social and ecological enlightenment, and thus also from the sharp antagonism against the right to a more inclusive model of concordance. The liberal democracies are based on consensus (brought about by conflicts of opinion!), On parliamentary compromises and on cooperation between parties and associations. This does not have to be as institutionally pronounced as in declared concordance and proportional democracies, but it does mean that the extreme right-left polarization must be lifted by an “ecological pole” that takes on the priorities of political action and leads to amicable solutions without “lazy” “Compromise is coming.

Since climate protection and the fight against the extinction of species also have an eminent foreign and security policy significance, this also includes the restoration of liberal internationalism against the “country first” efforts and the strengthening (and reform) of the multilateral institutions. The climate catastrophe rightly portrayed by Greta Thunberg thus becomes an encouraging opportunity for creative civil, entrepreneurial and social action.


Claus Leggewie's new book Now! Opposition - Protest - Resistance appears by Kiepenheuer & Witsch.

Published 11 September 2019
Original in German
First published by Eurozine