The prospect of Joerg Haider’s Freidemokraten participation in the Austrian government aroused horror in the entire spectrum of the “legitimate democratic” political block in the Western world: from the Social Democratic Left to the Christian conservatives, from Chirac to Clinton – not to mention, of course, Israel -, they all expressed “worries” and announced at least symbolic measures of Austria’s diplomatic quarantine, until this disease disappears or is proven not really dangerous.
Some commentators perceive this horror as the proof of how the basic post-World-War-II anti-Fascist democratic consensus in Europe still holds – are, however, things really so unequivocal? The first thing to do here is to recall the well-concealed, but nonetheless unmistakable, sigh of relief in the predominant democratic political field, when, a decade ago, the Rightist populist parties became a serious presence in Europe. The message of this relief was: finally the enemy whom we can all together properly hate, whom we can sacrifice – excommunicate – in order to demonstrate our democratic consensus! This relief is to be read against the background of what is usually referred to as the emerging “post-political consensus.”
The two-party system, the predominant form of politics in our post-political era, is the appearance of a choice where there is basically none. Both poles converge on their economic policy – recall recent elevations, by Clinton and Blair, of the “tight fiscal policy” as the key tenet of the modern Left: the tight fiscal policy sustains economic growth, and growth allows us to play a more active social policy in our fight for better social security, education and health… The difference of the two parties is thus ultimately reduced to the opposed cultural attitudes: multiculturalist, sexual etc. “openness” versus traditional “family values.” And, significantly, it is the Rightist option that addresses and attempts to mobilize whatever remains of the mainstream working class in our Western societies, while the multiculturalist tolerance is becoming the motto of new privileged “symbolic classes” (journalists, academics, managers…). This political choice – Social Democrat or Christian Democrat in Germany, Democrat or Republican… – cannot but remind us of our predicament when we want artificial sweetener in an American cafeteria: the all-present alternative of Nutra-Sweet Equal and High&Low, of blue and red small bags, where almost each person has his/her preferences (avoid the red ones, they contain cancerous substances, or vice-versa), where this ridiculous sticking to one’s choice merely accentuates the utter meaninglessness of the alternative.
And does the same not go for late TV talk shows, where the “freedom to choose” is the choice between Jay Leno and David Letterman? Or for the soda drinks: Coke or Pepsi? It is a well-known fact that the “Close the door” button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo, placed there just to give the individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey – when we push this button, the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just pressed the floor button without “speeding up” the process by pressing also the “Close the door” button. This extreme case of fake participation is an appropriate metaphor of the participation of individuals in our “postmodern” political process.
And this brings us back to Haider: significantly, the only political force with the serious weight which DOES still evoke an antagonistic response of Us against Them is the new populist Right – Haider in Austria, le Pen in France, Republicans in Germany, Buchanan in the US. However, it is precisely for this reason that it plays a key structural role in the legitimacy of the new liberal-democratic hegemony. They are the negative common denominator of the entire center-left liberal spectrum: they are the excluded ones who, through this very exclusion (their unacceptability as the party of the government) provide the negative legitimacy of the liberal hegemony, the proof of their “democratic” attitude. In this way, their existence displaces the TRUE focus of the political struggle (which is, of course, the stifling of any Leftist radical alternative) to the “solidarity” of the entire “democratic” bloc against the racist neo-Nazi etc. danger.
Therein resides the ultimate proof of the liberal-democratic hegemony of today’s ideologico-political scene, the hegemony which was accomplished with the emergence of the “Third Way” social democracy. The “Third Way” is precisely social democracy under the hegemony of liberal-democratic capitalism. i.e. deprived of its minimal subversive sting, excluding the last reference to anti-capitalism and class struggle.
It is absolutely crucial that the new Rightist populists are the only “serious” political force today which addresses the people with the anti-capitalist rhetorics, although coated in nationalist/racist/religious clothing (multinational corporations who “betray” the common decent working people of our nation). At the congress of the Front National a couple of years ago, le Pen brought to stage an Algerian, an African and a Jew, embraced them all and told the gathered public: “They are no less French than I am – it is the representatives of the big multinational capital, ignoring their duty to France, who are the true danger to our identity!” Hypocritical as such statements are, they nonetheless signal how the populist Right is moving to occupy the terrain left vacant by the Left.
Here, the liberal-democratic Neue Mitte plays a double game: it puts forward Rightist populists as our common true enemy, while it effectively manipulates this Rightist scare in order to hegemonize the “democratic” field, i.e. to define the terrain and win over, discipline, its true adversary, the radical Left. And in the events like Haider’s party’s participation in the government (which, let us not forget, has a precedent in the Fini’s neo-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale’s participation in the Berlusconi government a couple of years ago in Italy!), die neue Mitte gets its own message back in its inverted – true – form. The participation in the government of the far Right is the price the Left is paying for its renunciation of any radical political project, for accepting market capitalism as “the only game in town”.
[This article appeared on nettime mailing list in February 2000. Minor typos have been edited out.]