The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a relatively young party. When it was founded in February 2013, it was critical of Europe and the euro and made a name for itself by taking a nationalist stance in opposition to a decidedly neoliberal political climate, while at the same time displaying a nationalist, conservative wing.
One key milestone was the party conference in Essen in early July 2015. There, then-party chairperson Bernd Lucke was replaced by the duo of Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen, who embodied the party’s palpable shift to the right.
Since then, the trend to the right has continued. Acting as a catalyst for the public manifestation and further expansion of right-wing populist attitudes, and thus creating fertile ground for the AfD, came the mass influx of refugees in the autumn of 2015. The AfD’s then-vice and current co-speaker, Alexander Gauland, consequently stated in December 2015 that the refugee crisis had been a “gift” for his party. “In the first place, of course, we owe our comeback to the refugee crisis,” Gauland said at the time.
These days the AfD is a right-wing populist party with a strong extremist, völkisch* nationalist wing. This inflammatory brand of politics does not exist across the board; not even all of the party leadership take this line. However, the dynamic centre of the party surrounding Jörg Meuthen, Alexander Gauland, Björn Höcke and André Poggenburg are heading in this direction.
The departure of former AfD federal chairperson Frauke Petry from the party and from its faction in the German Bundestag brought to light a further power shift within the party. Frauke Petry accuses her former political colleagues of having evolved into an established party “in record time”. The AfD, she claims, no longer stands for “moderate content”. The new elections to the federal executive board in December 2017 confirm this development as well. At the AfD party conference, two currents vied for control of the direction and the public image of the party: the “alternative centre”, whose members describe themselves as liberal conservatives, and the radical “wing” revolving around Björn Höcke. The “alternative centre” still has a strong position in the party, but lacks an internal majority. The party conference in Hanover revealed the power relations within the AfD: conservative pragmatists are merely a minority that can be thwarted by Höcke’s like-minded nationalist comrades at any time.
Since its founding, the AfD has thus moved steadily to the right in three phases. The resignation of Bernd Lucke and the victory of Frauke Petry was followed by a party conference in Stuttgart where an anti-Islamic segment of the programme was met with cheers. Petry was then ousted from power by the broadly right-wing radical, or in other words, actively völkisch nationalist wing surrounding Alexander Gauland, Björn Höcke and André Poggenburg and supported by Jörg Meuthen. As a result, what we are now dealing with is a right-wing party — with followers who are just as radical or radicalised. Even though the AfD may currently emphasise “civil normality” in its policy strategy, in its political substance, it is a völkisch nationalist party that is radically transforming public discourse.
According to the AfD, Germany has evolved in the wrong direction, and the party wants to reverse the “left-wing Green [Party] paradigm shift” that has been taking place in the federal republic for decades. That is the substance of the AfD credo: “We’re taking our country back.” The best-known party ideologue is the faction boss from Thuringia, Björn Hocke. This mastermind of the nationalist völkisch wing of the AfD aims to politically instrumentalise the widespread national anxiety within German society: “The great social issue of our time is not primarily the distribution of our national wealth from top to bottom or from bottom to top, from the young to the old or vice versa. The great new German social issue for the 21st century is the question of distributing resources from the inside to the outside.” The far-right wing of the AfD is fighting to redefine the causes of social division as a purported conflict between the inside and the outside; between that which belongs to “us” and to “the others”.
AfD party leaders care little about the party’s approval ratings. For the majority of members, it’s about settling the score with the politics of a corrupt and self-centred elite that are harmful to the real concerns of the people. Jörg Meuthen emphasises: “This land, Germany, is our land. It is the land of our grandparents and our parents, and it is our civic duty to let it remain the land of our children and grandchildren. And to do that, we now have to take it back. … People should sense that, and know that we are not the ones who want to dig a grave for Germany. And our political opponents will soon face that harsh reality. We are the ones who will not surrender Germany! Dear friends, we cannot and will not knowingly accept how from month to month we’re becoming more and more of a minority in our own country. Enough is enough. We’ve had it up to here!”
He has positioned the AfD as a “we” against “the others”. He claimed that Merkel and Schulz “created policies that have done great lasting damage to the German people”, especially with an absurd policy on migration. It apparently took some time before he himself had grasped how far the “abolishers of Germany” had already gone with their policies: “When I walk through the centre of my own city on a Saturday afternoon and really look around … I see only very few Germans.” He claims he is not anti-foreigner. In his view, however, one must understand that the transformation of Germany into a society shaped by Muslims within a foreseeable number of years is a “mathematical certainty”. In the future, Meuthen claims, this country will be changed utterly and irreparably if the efforts to definitively reverse the process do not succeed. “We don’t want to become a minority in our own land, and yet in part we already are.” At the end of his message, he made clear: “Debates about a supposedly pragmatic political approach and a supposedly fundamentalist oppositional alignment don’t help us one bit.” It is time, he claims, “for those who have lived here longer to dismiss those long-serving politicians from their offices — and for good.”
It would be short-sighted to view the renaissance of the modern right-wing parties as limited to the AfD’s newly gained seats in the German Bundestag. The AfD — and its völkisch nationalist wing, in this case — is building up a network within civil society. A further area of activity is the creation of right-wing networks within labour unions. In recent days, the leaders of the right-wing scene gathered in Leipzig — Thuringia AfD politician Bernd Höcke, Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann and Martin Sellner, leader of the “identitary movement”. The goal of this meeting was to highlight a new objective for the movement. The AfD is supposedly the parliamentary arm, while the “automotive centre” is to become the “factory” arm. Jürgen Elsässer, editor-in-chief of the right-wing magazine “Compact” and leader of an oppositional publishing movement against “the filthy left-wing media cartel”, expressed it in these words: “We are launching a new front for the national and social liberation of the people. All the gears will stand still, if my blue arm so wills it.” (Blue is the colour of the AfD.)
Once the AfD had taken seats in Parliament, new goals were created. Sights are now set on the 2018 works council elections. Oliver Hilburger, whose “Zentrum” association won ten per cent of the vote at the Daimler plant in Untertürkheim and delivered two council members, wants to expand nationwide. The AfD’s success is to become permanently anchored in society. Compact editor-in-chief Jürgen Elsässer wants to overcome the conflicts among the various right-wing groups. “Let’s quit all this divvying up; the party and the movement shouldn’t let themselves be split apart”, he stated in Leipzig.
The hope that the strong shift to the right within the AfD toward a nationalist völkisch platform, together with internal party quarrels and conflicts, would lead to the AfD’s downfall has proven to be an illusion. The AfD’s nationwide success has provided the missing right-wing populist link within the party system. The effective political firewall, held for many years through an antifascist collective psyche that opposed right-wing populist and right-wing extremist parties, has lost its effectiveness. The double-digit results for the new right-wing party are no random blip. In the east German federal states, the AfD is already a major party, clearly much stronger than the Left Party or the Social Democratic Party. In Saxony, the AfD won the most votes (27%; in the other new federal states, it placed second within the party system. Nationwide, this has emboldened the radical right wing that dominates the party within the east German regional associations.
Looking back on many years of research, Wilhelm Heitmeyer, who studies right-wing extremism, says: “This event has not just occurred overnight. Back in 2001, I warned of a development in which the winner would be a rabid right-wing populism. Our theory at that time was that, with the help of globalisation, an authoritarian capitalism would expand that aimed to gain significant control over society. At the same time, this would lead to a loss of control by the politics of the nation state.”
For decades, in the main capitalist countries, we have been seeing an intensifying trend toward growing inequality and the hollowing-out of democracy. “People have the feeling that they, or the group with which they feel affiliated, have no voice in politics; that they are not being noticed at all. And it is well-known that someone who is not noticed is a nobody. And that, in turn, weakens faith in democracy, and it starts to lose its meaning.
This has been happening at a subtle pace for a long time now. Back in 2002, we established that about 20 per cent of the population was oriented toward right-wing populism. Some of them voted for other parties at elections, or had tuned out altogether. Or, in their hopelessness and their feeling of inferiority, they had fallen into an apathy saturated with rage.” In some social groups, particularly in the lower middle class, the expectation of upward mobility and the feeling of equal opportunity has distinctly vanished or is less pronounced. The fear of old age poverty has risen significantly. Data from current polls show very clearly that the rejection of minorities presents a projection that is largely connected with feelings of being disadvantaged and of (socio-economic) injustice.
The growing unequal distribution of income is essentially the result of a shift in the power relations within primary distribution; this means that the power reserves of the unions are so debilitated that they can no longer enforce the value of labour capacity across the board. The forces that could oppose this shift through political interventions, such as by raising the minimum wage, creating adequate transfer incomes, tax-mandated corrections of primary distribution or strengthening the rights of the unions, are weak compared to those powers that are driving inequality.
The most important conclusion that can be drawn from this development is that growing inequality threatens the existence and the functioning of the middle-income classes. Over the past three decades, their demographic has been shrinking in western democracies and has lost strength in comparison to the wealthy class and its established economic, as well as political, power. Of the diverse implications of this trend, two should be highlighted:
As a result of this development, the downfall and the fragmentation of the civil, social democratic and left-wing parties in almost all western countries have paved the way for parties that are right-wing populist and, to a certain degree, even hostile to the system.
The rise in social inequality is undoubtedly an important, if not the sole, factor in this political development. The tenor of many election analyses that attempted to explain this political turning point was that if globalisation leads to the bottom third of earners seeing no general increase in prosperity for an entire generation, while at the same time finding itself faced with greater insecurity in terms of employment and social coverage, it is not surprising that the consensus for democratic solutions is implicitly disappearing. Germany is drifting apart: more and more people feel they have been left behind. In the cities, high rents are driving poorer residents to the outskirts. And many, even in the middle class, are plagued by fears of sliding down the social scale. This makes them receptive to the simple messages espoused by the right-wing populists of the AfD.
The modern right-wing populist movements distinguish themselves from right-wing extremists in three main characteristics:
The AfD also sees and presents itself as the voice of opposition to the “old parties”. In comparison to the radical rejection of the political establishment and the media (“Lügenpresse”), the AfD’s objectives remain in the background. The party itself develops and changes its goals; the radical market, neoliberal demands and arguments are becoming less significant. To most voters and supporters of the AfD, details on the main points in the party’s manifesto are unknown. For them, the current public image of the AfD is enough: it is seen to be an anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-EU party. Voters scarcely let themselves be swayed by the fact that the party leadership is entangled in political and personal conflicts about its further political direction.
Since the marked increase in the movement of citizens seeking refuge into Germany in the late summer of 2015, the AfD has realigned its political focus from a critique of the euro and Europe toward asylum policies, especially with respect to migrants from Islamic countries. This builds on the fears and prejudices present within large segments of the population who view immigration with scepticism or condemnation. The AfD supports and exploits a one-sided and negative view of Islam. Additionally, the AfD has a base that wants to assert traditional family values as a societal norm.
A vivid illustration of this assessment is offered by the Thüringer Monitor survey, which has been studying political culture in the Free State of Thuringia since 2000. Since that time, it has been providing annual empirical evidence that registers developments in satisfaction with the democratic process, the support for democracy and the political attitudes of the population of Thuringia. The focal point of this year’s Thüringer Monitor is the social and political “centre”.
What is notable are the high rates of satisfaction: an astonishing 93 per cent of all those surveyed claim to be satisfied with their standard of living. However, perceptions of still being disadvantaged were being fed by a sense of “relative deprivation” in comparison with others, in no small part with west Germans. 53 per cent of those surveyed still claim to receive “less than a fair share” compared to others. It is perceptions of relative disadvantage such as these, which, although they may drop with increasing income levels, are still present to a significant extent within all income categories in Thuringia, that foster social resentment, denigration of minorities and right-wing extremism.
Satisfaction, in particular with “democracy as it functions in Germany”, has notably risen from 47 per cent in 2015 to 65 per cent in 2017, reaching the highest level since 2001 (see Graph 1 on the right).
Despite this high level of approval concerning the democratic decision-making process, we register a socially selective image of “a just distribution of resources” that is defensive against minority groups and characterises attitudes toward asylum seekers and “foreigners” in general. Thus 44 per cent of those surveyed agree with the statement that “foreigners” are coming here only to exploit our social welfare state and 54 per cent think that “most applicants for asylum do not actually fear being persecuted in their countries of origin”. 83 per cent claim that the state should not “be generous in its examination of asylum applications”. Such attitudes deemed to be “anti-foreigner” can be ascribed in significant part to an “ethnicising of social issues” and a kind of nationalism regarding the social welfare state, which itself is based upon the notion that the redistribution mechanisms of the social welfare state function as a zero-sum game, in which only those who pay a contribution are allowed to take part (see Graph 2 on the right).
The growing social polarisation, the feeling that individual efforts are no longer valued and that prospects for the next generation are bleak, along with the impression that the political class does nothing to address these concerns, are essential factors in the rise of right-wing populism. The societal basis for right-wing populism is historically specific resentment, i.e. attitudes and actions are rooted in a feeling of chronic powerlessness in the face of the disadvantages suffered. Resentment is, in a literal sense, a re-sentiment: a sheer experience of feeling once again the violation of one’s self-worth.
On the one hand, neoliberal politics have encouraged and demanded an enhancement in the value of subjectivity in the social net product. On the other hand, neither standards of achievement nor personal self-worth have thereby been satisfied. Furthermore, technological change, globalisation and the weakening of labourers’ rights, with all of their destructive consequences — the self-disempowerment of the nation states through the dispensation of state regulation of globalised financial markets — have created a perfect storm for the rise and spread of social inequality that transmutes into anti-state, anti-establishment resentment.
This resentment is not a spontaneous reflex against a suffered injustice. The sense of injury encourages the manifestation and serving of ethnocentric anti-foreigner, nationalistic or anti-Semitic ideological elements and political/psychological needs. The right-wing national mobilisation is founded on the insufficient ability to partake in the general growth of prosperity. It is also a backlash against the changes in cultural capital and against the powerlessness of the state apparatus. The origins of this cultural transformation lie within social and economic modernisation: the expansion of education, tertiarisation and women’s increasing equality in education and the job market. The unleashing of resentment spans across issues that have been intentionally brought in connection with each other, such as immigration, criminality, globalisation, internal security and national identity.
The frequently presented hypothesis that the lowest social classes are primarily responsible for this massive loss in the legitimacy of the political system is questionable. The facts of the matter are more complicated. The lowest social class is disillusioned with the establishment as well, but no longer finds any promise of improvement through elections. This rule holds true throughout Europe: the more precarious the social living standards, the lower voter participation in elections will be. From this, it follows that increasing regional and social differences lead to political inequalities. The more precarious the standards of living in an urban sector, the less likely it is that people will go out and vote.
Decreasing voter turnout in elections in Germany and Europe is thus a manifestation of a social cleavage within the voting public. Democratic participation in decision-making processes becomes an increasingly exclusive event for citizens from the middle and upper social milieus of societies, while the socially weaker milieus remain conspicuously underrepresented. They no longer take part in political decision-making processes. Long-term research studies conducted in western democracies attest to this: social inequality goes hand in hand with political inequality, primarily in regard to unequal participation. This leads to a chain reaction consisting of growing social inequality, unequal political participation and, finally, decisions favouring the politically active, from which the non-participating parties consequentially become disadvantaged.
The established parties have not yet been able to provide a sound answer as to how to cope with divisive sociocultural tendencies in today’s modern capitalist societies. Often, it is a shrunken and middle class-dominated version of the people that presents us with the political revolts of right-wing populism.
The social left will only gain the capacity to become a majority in the “Berlin Republic” if, in its projects in the various social milieus, it can seize upon an existing critique of capitalism and expectations of justice and give them a political aim within an alliance between the middle and the lower classes. Everyday notions of justice do exist but in a form that is still contradictory, and they are related to, and in part superimposed with, different cultural orientations. These could become determining factors in elections if they were taken up and, in a collective form, brought in connection with realistic goals. Social standards and broad political coalitions could be condensed into an alternative force.
There is an opportunity for a fundamentally different kind of politics. At its core, this is about a Europe that better protects its citizens from undesirable developments in market forces and where the state takes a more active role in shaping the future. Without partners, however, political change is impossible.
In 2017, mobilisation of right-wing populism is still limited and might be curbed through solid and credible social policies in Germany and Europe. However, in the face of the developments among right-wing populists in Austria, France and the Netherlands, and that of populism in Italy, there is the risk that a successful euro exit strategy, for example by Italy, could trigger an uncontrollable financial and social chain reaction of economic and political turbulence if democratic policies do not manage to reverse the trend in good time.
Without a fundamental transformation in politics with an explicit change of course regarding social insecurity and interventions in the structure of distribution, social democracy will not be able to recover its earlier strength, nor will right-wing populism be able to be restrained. If the shifts in the relations of distribution can be acknowledged as grounds for disillusionment and rage, the outcome will lead to the necessity — through engagement with the segment of the population that has been “left behind” — for a radical programme of social transformation. Of course, there is no patented formula for changing the degree of access citizens have to increased prosperity, but the core question is whether credible reforms will be sought and enforced.
Without such a credibly conveyed change of direction, the appeal to the other 85% of the population (minus AfD voters) will remain without any consequence. The fertile ground that has given rise to right-wing populist mindsets and organisations has emerged as a result of economic and cultural modernisation processes that “leave parts of society behind”. Objectively speaking, these people may not be losers; they may simply feel as though they are. However, we must clearly set ourselves apart from the right-wing credo. The AfD and its aims stand for a new type of authoritarian national radicalism. This is precisely because their primary goal is an authoritarian-style regaining of control — over one’s own life, over social relations, over borders. And over the prevailing political system as well, which it wants to push to the right. Within Europe, this development is no longer unique to Germany. This trend has been a long time coming — and is gaining ground.
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* Note on translation: The German term völkisch cannot be effectively translated into a single English term without dispensing with key historical, cultural and political nuances. In an effort to retain this spectrum of meaning, the term völkisch appears in German throughout the text. The historical term völkisch became politically connoted with theories of Aryan racial purity under 20th century German National Socialism. Currently in German mainstream discourse, völkisch conveys, for example, attitudes of racism, anti-Semitism, the desire for the exclusion of “outsiders” and for cultural homogeneity. Contemporary efforts to reclaim the term and redefine it “without racist overtones” for nationalist ethnic political movements included a recent, much-debated attempt by former AfD chairperson Frauke Petry. (Source in German: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/frauke-petry-und-das-wort-voelkisch-warum-die-afd-chefin-falsch-liegt-a-1111833.html). For further historical background on the term in English, please see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Völkisch_movement