Can Europe Make It?

The German radical right are not so hit by the virus: a reply to Hans-Georg Betz

As of now, the AfD stands (nationally) at 10 %, five per cent more than the threshold to enter the German parliament. Declining support has not exactly translated into increasing oblivion in the political space.

Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan
5 May 2020, 2.54pm
Frank Grobe, AfD MP, in the opening plenary session of the Hessian state parliament, May 5,2020.
Arne Dedert/PA. All rights reserved.

In his recent article, Hans-Georg Betz writes that the German AfD is paralysed by the pandemic, and unable to provide any practical solutions, which, potentially, could lead to its demise. As a German scholar of international law, whose identity as German is questioned by this party, I do not share this optimistic view. Rather the contrary. The AfD is bound to utilise the pandemic to further spread xenophobic sentiments among the German population. While Betz’ assessment is a ‘Momentaufname’, a snapshot in time, I would rather be reminded of Toni Morrison’s dictum: “racism may wear a new dress, buy a new pair of boots, but neither it nor its succubus twin fascism is new or can make anything new. It can only reproduce the environment that supports its own health: fear, denial and an atmosphere in which its victims have lost the will to fight.” The threat coming from the AfD is still a considerable one, and can only be countered through a sustained response rooted in social justice.

Declining poll numbers is not the same as declining support

Betz has stressed the fact that the poll performance of the AfD is steadily declining. This is indeed true. However, as of now, the AfD stands (nationally) at 10 %, five per cent more than the threshold to enter the German parliament. To be more precise, since 2017, they have lost two percentage points. Betz also refers to declining support for the far-right Lega of Matteo Salvini in Italy. It is worth stressing that the Lega is still at 26.6 %, five per cent ahead of the runner up, the centre-left PD. Hence, declining support has not exactly translated into increasing oblivion in the political space.

Betz makes three further important points. Firstly, he stresses his conviction that the current political climate will detrimentally effect the AfD. He is surely misguided. The fact is that the AfD, just like other far-right movements, is actively using the foreign aspects of the pandemic to stir up fears, incite hate and instigate division. When Donald Trump touts Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus”, (just like his right-wing contemporaries) he is fully aware of the impact of their wording on their power bases. Perhaps even more dangerously, the impact of the governmental measures, politically and legally, is edging the AfD even closer to conspiracy theorists, disgruntled citizens and government sceptics. This could lead to a dangerous alliance, with a lethal weaponisation of the public debate then translated into electoral currency.

His second argument is that the dissatisfaction arising from the financial crisis that provoked anger at the European Union (EU), had propelled the AfD into the arms of the Eurosceptics and metamorphosed them into a far-right populist movement, at the height of the so-called refugee crisis. He argues that the AfD is unable to capitalise upon the same sentiment in the current situation. What he fails to take into account is that anger at the crisis management of the EU is greater than it was before, leading to a steady rise of nationalisms surfacing in the EU. The EU lost yet more of its moral credibility with its failure to help Italy in its darkest hours during this crisis. After a lengthy silence, this is something the EU itself has admitted.

The EU has failed in its response as a solidarity community for a long a time now. This longstanding institutional decline began with the financial crisis in 2008, the ‘refugee crisis’ and now the Covid-19 crisis. Luigi Scazzieri from the Centre for European Reform writes:

Over the past decade, Italy has gone from being one of the most enthusiastic supporters of greater European integration to one of the most eurosceptic member-states. Many Italians felt that Italy did not receive much European solidarity during the eurozone crisis, and that the Union served as an enforcer of damaging austerity policies. The damage to Italians’ view of the EU was then compounded by the bloc’s response to the migration crisis. Italy took in 650,000 migrants between 2014 and 2018, and efforts to distribute these among other EU countries were largely symbolic.

If the EU invokes the orthodox neoliberal toolbox to encounter the aftermath of the economic downward spiral, which is almost certain, it will incite more opposition to the EU, spearheaded by the far-right. There will be a fragmentation of hostile autonomous units, which are "often coupled with a fiscal crisis that in its turn reinforces local fascisms. Fascism in the neoliberal state encourages the growth of local fascisms’ eventually ushering in ‘local conflicts escalating into ethnic or religious riots and their connection with the rise of ethnicity and multiculturalism will be taken up again." As Enzo Traverso highlights here, the EU is not the remedy: the outcome of the EU policies has been institutional failure. Moreover this lack of vision has transformed the EU into an agency confined to carrying out financial measures, the wilful vehicle of a neoliberal Leviathan.

The third point Betz expands on is divisions within the AfD. I contend that the defections and power struggles within the AfD will not lead to its decline, rather to a regrouping and restructuring of the party, as is evidenced by the dissolution of the fascist grouping ‘Der Flügel’. In the same vein, the AfD attempts to sanitise its public image through the suspension of Christian Lüth, the fascist spokesperson of the AfD parliamentary group. Despite all the defections, divisions and struggles, the AfD knows well how to regroup and forensically remove traces of nazism from its surface. The AfD is not comparable to the Socialist Reich Party (SRP) or the Nationalist Party of Germany (NPD) or the Republicans (Die Republikaner). The AfD has drawn on lessons from previous and current fascist parties. They are sophisticated, experienced and have people in their ranks who know how to move between the narrow parameters of legality. Considering revelations surrounding Combat-18, Nordkreuz, Hannibal, synagogue-attack in Halle, terrorist attack in Hanau and the gruesome Lübcke-killing, isn’t it evident that the AfD is the political magnet and legitimating voice of the far right movement in the German parliaments?

In the current situation, a dangerous amalgam of different interests is emerging. The AfD, like any other far-right movement, is fully aware of the much needed fuel for its malign policies. Arundathi Roy wrote that the pandemic is the portal: ‘(…) a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. (…)’ The AfD, in this regard, is rather interested in dragging those carcasses of prejudice, dead ideas, hatred, through that portal. The AfD will win the Deutungshoheit, as they will seize upon the valuable mixed capital of conspiracy, economic deterioration and opposition to the limitations on freedoms. They are still the disrupting force they have been pre-Covid-19.

The AfD, in this regard, is rather interested in dragging those carcasses of prejudice, dead ideas, hatred, through that portal.

How do we respond?

The response to the emerging far-right is not rooted in trust in current governance, or the faith vested in the manager of crisis. The fightback against the far-right is a longterm one, involving a counter-hegemonic approach and global solidarity which will lead to its comprehensive demise, including the AfD. We are engaged in a longer process of de-solidarity according to Obiora Chinedu Okafor, UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity:

By this, I do not mean the failure to express solidarity or the tendency to abusively deploy it. Rather, I mean the increasing tendency to fundamentally question or problematize solidarity itself as a conception, praxis or obligation, and to work to dismantle the infrastructure of solidarity.”

Invoking Antonio Gramsci, counter-hegemonic resistance is about the struggle for the hearts and minds of people. It is a fight for a change in their attitudes, beliefs, and emotions. Gramsci wrote that a revolution "presupposes the formation of a new set of standards, a new psychology, new ways of feeling, thinking and living". Chantal Mouffe writes of the formation of a "new public: a platform for citizens to have a voice and exercise their rights." The response must be social justice for the many, not the few.

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