The Return to Incivility

Nga Than (2018), good friend of mine and Vietnamese researcher based in Germany, recounts her experience with two racist German teenagers, who said to her that foreigners have to leave Germany:

This incidence was different. It challenged my physical appearance, and it left a permanent psychological disturbance. It took place in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain in East Berlin, where the majority voted for the Green Party, or the Linke in the last state election. I didn’t expect such a characteristically AfD behavior on the streets of the district. In the period of two years I had lived in Germany before, I never encountered such an incidence. Yet now as a tourist, the expression was directed to me, and it disturbed me tremendously. How daily civility has changed in this city!

It becomes worthwhile to think about where the rich societies of the world are going. In a timespan of a few years it is possible to normalize a discourse of detesting foreigners and blaming them for all the ills that exist in domestic society. One might argue that this has long been in the making. A lily-white German society had been transformed over half a century to a much more diverse and multicultural society, inviting many people of Middle Eastern and now also African and Asian origin to immigrate.

The official discourse had been rather welcoming of immigrants, imparting the cosmopolitan and technocratic consensus that an increase in the migrant population is structurally necessary to provide for the economic growth that maintains the pensions and the social welfare system.

But here the technocratic discourse will ultimately fall on deaf ears, because the native, domestic population consists of the many losers of globalization, automation and rationalization. The capitalist system creates so much economic dislocation and uncertainty that most workers can no longer be sure that they can live a similarly privileged life as their parents (many don’t). People in developing countries might criticize the rich developed country people of complaining about first-world problems. Even to have employment instability, precarious work arrangements or rising rents might be a nicer problem to have than drought, famine and civil war. But relative deprivation, which is a driver of human behavior, is about the comparison with people, who are physically close to you. A lower middle class person in Dortmund thinks about the run-down neighborhoods in Dortmund, and not in Bombay. The neoliberal technocrats have failed the working people, who use their frustration to vote against the establishment: Brexit, Trump, Five Star Movement.

Relative deprivation and economic frustration merely provide the fertile ground for the political opposition toward immigration, but it would not explain that this anger and this collapse in public civility would happen right at this moment. Randall Collins had analyzed how physical violence gets carried out, and he argues that it is a difficult thing to accomplish and happens mostly when there is overarching emotional dominance among the perpetators. Think of multiple rapists going at one defenseless female. Think of a dozen police officers beating a black guy lying on the ground. Once the violence happens the rhythmic entrainment between the perpetrator and victim, i.e. the emotional dominance and position of overwhelming strength of the former and the whimpering, surrendering pose of the latter, encourage the perpetrator to inflict even more and worse violence.

Is that analysis of the steps of violence useful to explain the growing incivility against foreigners? It is relevant to some extent. As I said, underlying tensions and resentment against foreigners has long existed in western society. Neoliberalism and the growth of foreigners take away the economic security of the domestic population, but the masses are not lashing out. The lashing out comes with permanent political agitation coming from a charismatic leader, who urges on his people that it is okay to hate the foreigners and to reclaim the country for your own people. The rhythmic entrainment, the use of body language for the escalation of a situation (which can be good or bad, e.g. sex or violence), happens on the campaign rallies of Marine LePen, AfD, Brexit, The Northern League, FPO and Trump. Finally someone speaks to their heart. Yes, these false preachers might have no real solutions, but they feel my problem. The technocratic establishment does not.

The very well-attended Trump rallies provided the fertile ground and legitimation for denouncing Mexicans as rapists and even to inflict physical violence on mostly non-white anti-Trump protesters. Trump encourages his minions, “Get him out of here,” referring to a protester in his rally. During one rally he encouraged his fans to take off a protester’s winter coat and send him out into the freezing cold. It is as if the protester was not a human being deserving of equal treatment and respect. What about after the elections? Post-Trump immigration officers feel vindicated to deny certain people entry into the country. Since his takeover, the refugee inflow has declined to a tiny trickle because of understaffing and increasing the already onerous vetting requirements. On an interpersonal level, viral Facebook videos show how white racists want all people to speak English in public or “go home”.

In Germany, the refugee crisis provided the fertile ground for the AfD, which began as a party of intellectuals, who worried about the benefits of the euro membership, and then devolved into a nationalist, anti-immigrant party, emphasizing Das Volk, the people. That’s how you become a big party. This Nazi discourse had long been suppressed, because of the German historical guilt, but economic dislocation and distance to the Nazi era means that the young Germans can now again be socialized in volkisch, nativist and xenophobic discourse. Once new behaviors become the norm, the escalation toward open violence against foreigners is only a matter of time.

The era of globalization and immediate interconnectedness also means that the nationalists, who provide the perception of security to the masses, celebrate each other’s political victories and spur each other on. If it’s okay to hate immigrants in the US, why is it not okay in Austria, Sweden or Greece? When Trump demands Putin to return to the G8 or praises Kim Jong-un as a great leader, the punditry and mainstream establishment claims to be shocked. How can the leader of the free world praise dictators? Perhaps because Trump does not care too much about democratic norms either. And why should he? The neoliberal establishment has done its best to make democratic elections virtually meaningless. Bill Clinton said in the 1990s that the Democrats would win elections based on neoliberal strategies that made the Republicans successful in the 1980s. Tony Blair’s New Labour had something similar in Britain. Thus, the big parties converge on a political consensus that there are no alternatives to neoliberal globalization and endless immigration. In the absence of Bernie Sanders on the ballot, people prefer a self-obsessed billionaire, who threatens to overturn the liberal order, over the establishment candidate. For people like the Hungarian premier, Viktor Orban, this globalist agenda is driven by George Soros, a rich philanthropist.

As nationalists in one country succeed, their claim to power becomes fair game in the other countries until there no longer is any liberal bastion. The legitimation of a raw public discourse makes immigrants and foreigners an unwelcome piece of meat that need to be extinguished from the territory regardless of how many years or generations they had spent there or how much taxes they contributed to the welfare state. The outrage and fight against xenophobia can only be successful when the civil society is strong. And it is still strong, providing the bulwark against an even more uncivil turn over the short run. But the cracks in civil society are appearing and becoming greater every day. It is not inconceivable to experience a return to a fascist regime, where the strong ruler promises security to the masses in exchange for the surrender of individual liberty.

The liberal order is dying, yet the complicated thing is that some aspects of it are worth preserving (dignity to the individual, universal human rights, freedom of speech), while some things are not (like a capitalist system focused on accumulation for the global 1%, and misery and insecurity for the rest of us). Trump is throwing more fuel to the fire by picking trade wars with the countries of the western alliance. The rise of Hitler in the 1930s was not unrelated to America’s Smoot-Hawley tariffs, which halted global trade integration and created autarkic fascist regimes bent on global military conquest.

What about the other countries? Theresa May still thinks Britain is stronger outside of the EU. Macron wants to double down on liberalizing the French labor market, but with Marine LePen ready to take over as most workers are bound to be disappointed. Merkel is limping on, but the two major governing parties are unpopular as ever with the AfD gaining ground in opposition. The Five Star Movement wants to challenge the existence of the euro and the Northern League wants to deport all refugees in Italy. We rarely get to choose how history is made, even though we are the only actors. In that statement, Marx is vindicated. We are not awaiting a liberal utopia but a tribalist nightmare.

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4 Responses to The Return to Incivility

  1. Nga Than says:

    I like how you responded to my blog post on racism with A Marxist and political economy take. I dont have much to argue with you, just want to acknowledge that the inflows of immigrants in Germany are results of many dynamics: a demographic crisis, capitalist labor shortages in various sectors, and geopolitical instability in many parts of the world. In other words, immigrants represent all of the above crises. Currently my thoughts have mainly to do with the lived experience of immigrants of color in Germany, and I think you have experienced it to a great extent growing up in Austria.

    The other aspect of the public discourse in Germany that I am very interested in is the human rights discourse. It has been a long tradition in Germany to give one group a special legal right to stay under the human rights umbrella. I think it is very problematic because once there’s no official Immigration Law that spells out immigrants’ rights, one has to resort back to the abstract human rights framework, which could be interpreted any way you want. I think I’d prefer a more concrete immigration framework, which spells out specific rights to people who migrate to Germany for whatever reason. All these rights cut across class. That means they have a concrete thing in the book to refer back to. As my blog post alludes to, Germans are very good following clearly defined rules, but once it comes to ambivalence, they remain silent mostly because tacit knowledge is not something that one is taught to recognize.

  2. Nga Than says:

    Two more book recommendations about populism, and neo-Nazism that I think you might find interesting:

    Miller-Idriss, C. (2018). The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany. Princeton University Press.

    Müller, J. W. (2017). What is populism?. Penguin UK.

  3. Great writing and summary of several dynamics currently at works globally and in Europe, Larry. As always, I enjoy your reflections.
    I think that times have become less certain no matter the size of your pocketbook. However, for those who have more to loose the “poor” immigrants are often seen as competitors by those with limited education but also are perceived as threat by those who live a comfortable life and have high levels of education simply because they represent the possibility of an uncertain future.
    Finally, the technocracy of the European Union and the global treaties have restricted the political agency of local governments and voters. As you say, national elections become somewhat meaningless because there are few alternatives for mainstream parties burdened with the legacy of supranational and global regulations. Why then support anti-immigration and nationalistic movements rather than egalitarian movements — I think because of the complex dynamics of globalization for one. But also, there are not too many egalitarian movements and we have not supported civil society enough in the recent decades of neo-liberal growth. We need a economic paradigm shift as Stephan Schulmeister describes in his new book “Der Weg zur Prosperität. Prosp along side of a support for human rights and individual right to freedom and dignity.

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