In the current political and social catastrophe, the denizens of the art world overwhelmingly take the position of concerned liberals, shaking their heads in disbelief at the rise of Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, UKIP, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Pegida, and so on. Let’s call it Wolfgang Tillmans Syndrome. The photographer, who in the run-up to the Brexit referendum launched a pro-EU poster campaign, is the perfect poster boy for the EU and the international metropolitan lifestyle it enables. He is clearly cultured, smart, tolerant, and empathetic—though perhaps not overly willing to acknowledge the structural violence and entrenched privilege that fosters such a subjectivity. His downloadable posters, like the “Remain” campaign as such, failed to achieve the desired goal, being up against fears and desires resistant to reasoning. That Brexit will likely hurt many of those who voted “out” more than it will hurt Tillmans has been adduced as proof of the utter irrationality of the whole thing. However, it is also clear that the likes of Tillmans have profited disproportionately from the neoliberal policies with which the EU has been, disproportionately if not entirely unfairly, identified in the minds of many (due to conservative politicians’ and newspapers’ scapegoating of “Brussels”). In this sense, there is a logic to pulling the plug, however (self-)destructive it may be. How have we gotten to this point, and how to get beyond it?
The rapidly emerging global alliance of enraged white Wutbürger—in Little England, in Iowa, in Saxonia—is not devoid of a certain rationality even in its most hateful, xenophobic, and homophobic manifestations. For all the differences between the Western-European welfare states and the more nakedly capitalist regime in the United States, the postwar consensus in both societies was based on an ideology of limitless growth. The working class may not have been promised jetpacks, but for decades social democrats, progressives, and socially conservative economic liberals alike held out the promise of slow but steady advance: “Your children will be better off than you.” Now that this system is stuttering, the ideology of growth has been replaced with the reality of wealth redistribution from bottom to top. This is what “austerity measures” and cutbacks in social services, health, and education ultimately amount to. For a number of decades, with the 1970s as the high-water mark, free or affordable higher education was the real-life embodiment of the rhetoric of working-class emancipation. And it actually worked, up to a point.
The combination of stalling economic growth and ongoing ecological devastation has created a perfect storm in which various economically, socially, or politically threatened populations are actively turned against each other. This is the core business of contemporary neofascism, from Wilders and Pegida to Le Pen and Trump, and also extending to the various degrees and admixtures of fascism in the German AfD and CSU, in the Dutch VVD, in Sarkozy’s Les Républicains, in UKIP and the “Leave” camp. “Neofascism” evokes neo-styles in art, though in contrast to neo-Gothic architects, neofascist leaders and movements often refrain from publicly praising the original—or rather originals, from Italy to Germany and beyond. The differences in the repetitions are significant; for instance, in today’s financialized economy, business leaders are often vocal proponents of internationalism, rather than rallying behind those who want to build walls. Yet genealogical linkages between historical and contemporary fascisims are as apparent as a network of family resemblances between the various neofascisms.
Time and again, in country after country, (male) white voters are mobilized against an enemy who may already be inside the walls. Usually, the main enemy is immigrant populations, for whom the postwar promise of an ever improving social contract actually still bears some relationship to reality—since they start from a far more underprivileged position. Another, relatively minor adversary is “the cultural elite,” and all concerns about precarity notwithstanding, art and culture are on the winning side. Now that hymns to economic growth have been replaced by the naked upwards redistribution of wealth, art has become a crucial asset for the diversified portfolio of the 0.1 percent, and in the cultural sphere the trickle-down effect is more than mere ideology. As a result, any artistic or intellectual critique must be self-critique. Being creative and precarious in Berlin still beats being unemployed in an ex-mining town, but the two conditions are different sides of the same polyhedron. The fascists may be the others, but casting off the Bad Object will get us nowhere. We, too, are part of the problem, living large in the vanguard of destruction.
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