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Jürgen Habermas: How to pull the ground from under right-wing populism


In a timely and insightful interview, Jürgen Habermas proposes a strategy for neutralizing the right-wing political forces that have recently emerged in Germany, in Europe as a whole, and beyond. Read an excerpt from the interview below, or the full text here.

Even worse than the right-wing populists would appear to be the “contagion risks” among the established parties – and indeed, throughout Europe. Under pressure from the Right, the new prime minister in Great Britain has undertaken a hard-line policy of deterring or even expelling foreign workers and migrants; in Austria the social democratic head of government wants to restrict the right to asylum by emergency decree – and in France Francois Hollande has been governing for nearly a year already in a state of emergency, to the joy of the Front National. Is Europe even alert to this right-wing revolt or are republican achievements being irreversibly eroded?

Habermas: In my estimate, domestic politicians mishandled right-wing populism from the start. The mistake of the established parties lies in acknowledging the battlefront that right-wing populism is defining: “We” up against the system. Here it matters hardly a jot whether this mistake takes the form of an assimilation to or a confrontation with “right-wing”. Take either the strident would-be French president Nicolas Sarkozy who is outbidding Marine Le Pen with his demands, or the example of the sober-minded German justice minister Heiko Maas who forcefully takes on Alexander Gauland in debate – they both make the opponent stronger. Both take him/her seriously and raise his/her profile. A year on we here in Germany all know the studiously ironic grin of Frauke Petry (AfD leader) and the demeanour of the rest of the leadership of her ghastly gang. It’s only by ignoring their interventions that one can cut the ground from under the feet of the right-wing populists.

But this requires being willing to open up a completely different front in domestic politics and doing so by making the above-mentioned problem the key point at issue: How do we regain the political initiative vis-à-vis the destructive forces of unbridled capitalist globalisation? Instead, the political scene is predominantly grey on grey, where, for example, the left-wing pro-globalisation agenda of giving a political shape to a global society growing together economically and digitally can no longer be distinguished from the neoliberal agenda of political abdication to the blackmailing power of the banks and of the unregulated markets.

One would therefore have to make contrasting political programmes recognisable again, including the contrast between the – in a political and cultural sense – “liberal” open-mindedness of the left, and the nativist fug of right-wing critiques of an unfettered economic globalization. In a word: political polarisation should be re-crystallised between the established parties on substantive conflicts. Parties that grant right-wing populists attention rather than contempt should not expect civil society to disdain right-wing phrases and violence. Therefore, I regard as the greater danger a very different polarisation towards which the hard-core opposition within the CDU is moving when it casts a leery eye on the post-Merkel period. In Alexander Gauland it recognises anew the pivotal figure of the Dregger wing of the old Hesse CDU, or flesh of its own flesh, and toys with the idea of winning back lost voters by way of a coalition with the AfD.

Image: Jürgen Habermas.