• The Case of Austria: A European Test Case?

  • Por Walter Baier | 25 May 09
  • What’s wrong with the Austrians? In the elections which took place at the end of September, the two parties who ended up on the right margin of the political spectrum, the “Freedom Party” FPÖ and the “Austrian Future Alliance” BZÖ (Haider) together got 28.2 % of votes, which made them the second strongest political formation in parliament. They are therefore at the level of the Social-Democrats (29.3 %) and the Christian-Conservatives (26 %), both of whom had for decades dominated political life. The pompous funeral ceremonies for Jörg Haider, the Carinthian governor who died just two weeks before in an automobile accident, made plain another aspect of the disconcerting political situation of the Alpine Republic: Right-wing extremism has not only come into the centre of society; it has also moved into the centre of the political system. This distinguishes Austria from other European Union democracies.

    The more details are known, the more worrying the electoral results appear. The FPÖ and BZÖ represent the strongest political group among young voters; among men under 30 the figure was 42 %. If the BZÖ was able to achieve its electoral growth for the most part at the expense of the ÖVP; the FPÖ generated its electoral growth at the expense of the Social-Democrats, which does not bode well for the upcoming municipal elections in “Red Vienna”.

    The extent to which the rightward shift is corrupting the country’s political culture was already evident when the FPÖ presented a politician as the third president of the Parliament, who had belonged to a student league dissolved in 1961 due to its neo-Nazi politics. According to parliamentary custom we can expect that he will be elected by the majority of parliamentary deputies, including those of the Social-Democrats.

    Significantly, even opinion-researchers who are close to Social-Democracy are trying to pacify public opinion. No, they claim, the right-wing electoral growth does not signal a shift to the right but “only” a protest attitude. The elites, they say, have been punished. The population’s growing dissatisfaction had, they say, already been visible before election day, etc.

    The data, however, speak clearly: If in the 2006 elections 48 % of the vote fell to what can very broadly be called left parties (Austrian Social-Democratic Party, Greens, Liberal Forum, Austrian Communist Party), now their share has sunk to 40 %. The opposite has occurred with the electoral share of the right and extreme right parties (ÖVP, Liste Fritz, FPÖ, BZÖ). In addition, however, the share of the two extreme-right parties within this grouping rose from 30 % to 50 %.

    It is assumed that the electorate of these parties either didn’t intend to vote as they did or had committed an error. It is probably correct that the vote received by the FPÖ and BZÖ from the insecure middle strata and the lower strata of the male working class is the expression of deep frustration and insecurity – this by no means exclusively in respect to their economic situation but also, among other things, as regards their gender role. It is not only in Austria that investigations show that unemployment and casualisation of life has hit the traditional conception of masculinity in society’s under-privileged strata very hard.

    It is, however, equally true that no one who voted for the two extreme-right-wing parties could ignore the mean-spirited, xenophobic and anti-minority character of their electoral campaigns clearly and brazenly directed against the Muslim population and asylum seekers of colour. Anyone who voted for the FPÖ and BZÖ could therefore not have deluded themselves; rather they voted for these parties precisely because of their xenophobia, or at least took account of the latter in their own protest behaviour. When one of the well-known Austrian opinion pollsters speaks simplistically of Haider and Strache having appealed to the opinions that the voters already themselves had, he was probably right, but precisely this is the reason for alarm.

    With the state funeral for Jörg Haider,# the “spiritual father of right extremism in Austria”1, the incorporation of the extreme right into the official political system reached a high point. In Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral and in the basilica of Klagenfurt, funeral masses were performed by the highest-ranking clergy. Three of the six speakers, who due to their official functions spoke at the funeral broadcast live by state television, were top Social-Democratic politicians, among them a Federal Chancellor who called Haider an “extraordinary politician” and “an exceptional political phenomenon”. One ought not, he remarked, to “make the mistake of rejecting a priori Haider’s criticism of existing conditions”.

    Weeks later, Haider’s death is itself still puzzling. It has been established that the governor was tearing through a residential area at more than 140 kilometres per hour and with a blood alcohol content of 1.8 per mill. Obviously, these and other compromising circumstances of his death were not mentioned in the official funeral ceremonies.

    It seems at first incomprehensible that talking publicly about Haider’s scandalous political career extending to the last day of his life is frowned upon – for example talking about the concentration of asylum seekers in internment camps far removed from any population settlement, which was decreed shortly before his death.

    The truth is that the cult around Haider that is being stage-managed by the yellow press, as well as by talk shows on public and private TV networks, is the final touch in the banalisation of the right-wing extremism which set in in the mid-1980s. Racism and the baiting of foreigners are no longer evils to be banned from public discourse but are legitimate points of view within the democratic debate.

    Foreign observers rightly point to an Austrian particularity. The country, although it was the first victim of National Socialism’s typical predatory policy of conquest, did participate actively in the latter’s crimes. More than 10 % of its adult population became members of the NSDAP. Considering this large number of more or less incriminated people, the public confrontation with National Socialism and anti-semitism was neglected by the governing parties.

    It is true that at the end of the 1980s, the involvement of many Austrians in National Socialism became a topic of open discussion, due to the debate on then Federal President Waldheim’s war past. However, these discussions were limited to the left-liberal elites who gained acceptance, especially via the media, for a new view of contemporary Austrian history and, based on this, a code of “political correctness”. But this had nothing to do with the problems, attitudes and mood of the broader sections of the population, as we now see.

    The new “political correctness” imposed a double morality on those societal groups which in the last decade experienced mainly social decline and insecurity. The “catch-up” de-Nazification of public life was tolerated but had no real effects in daily life. Racists attitudes persisted; only their public expression was frowned upon.

    The fact that this historically brief hegemonic left-liberal anti-Nazism was unable to brake the forward march of everyday racism, has to do with its relative indifference to the social dislocations wrought by neoliberalism and EU membership, in whose discourse it was, moreover, often entangled in the first place.

    For those subjected in the most literal sense to these societal upheavals, racist models of interpretation worked quite well. In a society that no longer guaranteed well being and social security even for Haider’s oft-invoked “industrious and decent” people, while it raised competition to a universal principle, being “native” becomes the final, if imaginary, advantage in the desperate struggle for survival and for one’s own dignity.

    Where social cohesion falls apart along with the social state, the imaginary ethnic community at least promises some feeling of security. Finally, where the role models learned through advertisement and mass culture are seen to be absurd in the context of one’s own social decline, the extreme right-wing’s swaggering represents the last resort of wounded masculinity.

    In this respect, racist stereotypes prove to be fatally effective in temporarily coping with daily frustrations; since, however, they cannot get rid of the latters’ causes, they are also the source of a level of aggression that is constantly rising as the social crisis intensifies.

    For countries with stable republican traditions it may be that the advance of right-wing extremism expresses the weak capacity of the left to make their alternative plausible and practicable. For Austria this is the case to the extent that the bankruptcy of the Austrian Trade Union Confederation, which became clear in 2006, strategically worsened the possibilities of social and political resistance.

    The reverse context, however, also applies to the Austrian case, that is, the essential cause of the insufficient effectiveness and plausibility of left alternatives has also to do with the right-wing hegemony anchored in the centre of society, which is no longer called into question by the Social-Democrats or Greens. Thus right-wing extremism becomes a symptom of a political crisis whose basis is excluded from the public debate. Politically, what becomes apparent in the results of the National Council elections is the continuation of cooperation between the two parties which lost the elections. Together they represent no more than 54 % of the electorate by now. Nobody expects the newly established “grand coalition” to remedy the grievances that led to its failure and defeat. And this lays the basis for a continued rise of the extreme right’s electoral potential.

    However, in the meanwhile another great danger is emerging: The crisis that is spreading like an ever more furiously raging conflagration within the world economy will also have drastic repercussions on the living conditions of social groups which have up to now been able to feel secure. The dogma proposed by neoliberalism, and incorporated in EU policies, of a radicalised market economy is now collapsing in front of their very eyes and is being delegitimised. This, however, is not the case with the neoliberal culture and mode of life, which in their world outlook represent the antithesis of a solidaristic socialisation.

    This contradiction between the delegitimisation of neoliberalism in the area of economy and politics on the one hand, and the persistence of its hegemony in daily life, on the other hand, creates an opening, within the crisis, for a left-wing as well as a right-wing development.

    Austria could become a laboratory in which this contradiction is managed under the leadership of an extreme right.