As events unfold in England, I find my comments columns becoming very symptomatic of the polarisation now occurring all over Europe. Most of us are too parochially-minded to see things clearly, not that I have any pretensions. We are sucked up into a vast “movement” that makes us increasingly suspicious of that very word.
Are we returning to the 1930’s? The Guardian article For hard-right revolutionaries, Brexit is cover for a different end is quite frightening in the bewildering swirl of allegations about big business and manipulation by demagogues. One such person to watch out for is Steve Bannon,
Steve Bannon is being talked about a lot. This gentleman is President Trump’s former strategist, ousted from his White House post. Over the years, especially from 2015, I have been noticing collusions of events in the world. It is the old thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic of Hegel as we were flooded with news about war and atrocities in the Middle-East, leading to large numbers of Muslim immigrants into most European countries, but some went to the Americas. We were told all sorts of things about them. Then there was Daesh aka ISIS who began to take the world back to the era of Vlad Dracul the Impaler, and many terrorist attacks in Europe. The ironic title “religion of peace” was coined and we all found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between ordinary Muslim people and the Jihadists and terrorists. I was no exception in the movement that led to Donald Trump in the USA and Brexit in my own country. I was mercifully spared from voting by the “15-year” rule that takes suffrage away from Brits who have been out of the country for more than fifteen years.
Two years after the election of Trump and the referendum in England, the dots begin to be joined, and what we see is quite ugly. We live in a world of smoke, mirrors, Trojan horses and lies. Here in France, we learned of some very severe tax hikes in diesel and petrol prices, and that the gilet jaune would be the symbol of the protest against this policy aimed at punishing the population for the use of motor vehicles instead of public transport. The gilet is the safety vest all motorists are required by law to have in their cars in the event of a breakdown and being visible on the road in poor visibility conditions. The problem is that we don’t all live in Paris. Those of us living in the country depend on vehicles for work and everything until such time as there will be a viable alternative. An ecological reasoning become opposed to the social condition of ordinary cash-strapped people. Battery technology isn’t yet well enough advanced for electric vehicles to be viable in these conditions. Perhaps in 2040 but not yet. It seemed to be a social movement with which I solidarised by putting the gilet on my dashboard. I mention this movement because of the way far right-wing people rode on it piggy-back, or even initiated it anonymously. They started blocking traffic and committing acts of violence. My gilet is now back with my toolbox and safety equipment kit in the back of my van!
President Macron seems to be a strange mixture of Thatcherite capitalism and resistance to the new populism. Much as we don’t like being made to pay more for things, I see many signs of good sense in this young man’s ideas. He represented a break from the old post-Gaullist centre-right and centre-left oscillation, and faced off Marine Le Pen in the final televised debate before the May 2017 election. If you understand French, here it is:
For you to judge… I found it very revealing. Macron is obviously trying to satisfy the populist cravings of French people whilst refusing the excesses of nationalism and populism.
Different parts of Europe are reacting differently to the populist challenge, as are the United States of America and countries like Brazil. How concerned should we be? Asking the question differently, are we all enthused about a political philosophy that defines everything in terms of The Enemy? If we suggest that we are going back to the 1930’s and the rise of Hitler, people will poo-poo us and accuse of being victims of Godwin’s Law. We are not returning to that era, because the historical circumstances are not the same, nor is the popular culture or use of technology. It will not be the same. This is why future demagogues will not have a Charlie Chaplin moustache or yell at the crowds in German with an Austrian accent! We must move beyond appearances and analyse the essential philosophical and ideological characteristics. Propaganda will not be crude like that of Josef Göbbels, but would use the latest technologies of targeted advertising and psychological manipulation.
The extent of populism is quite alarming, and has entered mainstream politics in some countries. It is at its strongest in eastern Europe, Sweden, Greece, Austria and France. Mainstream parties have had to adopt populist rhetoric to be able to compete, as Sarkozy tried to do against Marine Le Pen and her father.
Populism is not an ideology, but rather a kind of self-definition in relation to The Enemy, legitimising “the people” and demonising “the elites”. It can take root on the extreme left as well as the extreme right. A populist is any politician who claims to represent the unified will of the people against foreign migrants, elites, “political correctness” and minorities. For the sake of comparison, Hitler was clear in Mein Kampf that “the enemy” was Judaism and Jews. Without the dialectic, it is impossible to build the needed pitch of fanatical fervour. Another characteristic of populist politics is the use of the referendum, which is certainly what certain elements in the Conservative Party manipulated in 2015-16.
Another characteristic is attacking the judiciary and the media. Immigration is a hot-button issue. As a right-wing manifestation, we find nationalist ideology and “Christian values”. We ought to stop and think about this for a moment. I am a Christian myself and a priest. From 1981, I became exposed to traditionalist Catholic conspiracy theories and this kind of dialectical thinking. Was this not Christ’s “you are either for me or against me”, the fundamental choice between good and evil, God and Satan? I bought it for many years, and I came to France in 1982, met men like Dominique Cabanne de Laprade, a nationalist fanatic who participated in an assassination attempt against General De Gaulle. The Roman Catholic Church is still full of it, from Pope Francis’ Peronist leanings to Opus Dei. Whether it was the Society of St Pius X or the officially recognised communities, the ideology was the same, us or them. It was more polite and refined at Gricigliano, and I recognise that Msgr Wach did try to take some of the bitterness out of the aspiration to a new Christendom. Many steps back, and I would discover Friedrich von Hardenburg‘s Christenheit oder Europa, not an apologetic argument for restoring some kind of theocracy, but rather an analogy to promote a form of cosmopolitanism. Before that, I discovered Catholic Modernism, the old Romantic-inspired Liberalism in France, Russian philosophers and other thoughts that began to set me free to discover another kind of traditional Christianity. To this day I grapple with the contradictions between Christian conservatism and populism and a higher and nobler understanding. Hence came my attraction to Romanticism and philosophy in the meaning of searching for and loving wisdom.
Many Christian values are not very Christian in my view. I have been faced with the worst intolerance and bigotry, against which Christ answered Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves (Mt xxiii. 15). Churches have paid the price, and they are closing down as Christianity no longer represents the least reference in anyone’s life. It happened in the 1790’s, again in the 1900’s and again now. When this kind of abuse is committed, and I haven’t even mentioned the stinking corruption and rank hypocrisy of priests who abuse children sexually and the bishops who cover them up, it does not go unpunished! Myself, I have to look within and find a new way of understanding Christ in order to survive as a Christian believer and a priest. The Christian life has nothing to do with politics, and especially not with populism. I carry on walking in the gloom, confident that God will show me the light.
I leave it to the experts to analyse how populism relates to different cultures in different parts of Europe and the world. I am more interested in examining the ideology and philosophical elements. As I mentioned, there isn’t much of an ideology – just hating your enemy enough to give you a sense of identity and self-worth.
What do populists want to do? We have plenty of examples of revolutions in history. “The Movement” is too diverse to be predictable. Its influence in British politics is only indirect, mainly through business connections. The main single-issue themes is some form of ethnic cleansing, presently by means of deportations and rigorous screening at the frontiers, and blowback against “political correctness”.
Those of us who identify with more mainstream ideas tend to assume that our democratic institutions and liberalism are stable and enduring, but we are perhaps too optimistic. The first victim of such changes is the rights of populations, not only Muslims and homosexuals, but also immigrants from different parts of the world and from the poorer European countries. Political institutions can be eroded and undermined by money, plenty of it. For those in favour of a hard Brexit, the enemy is the European Union and any freedom of movement of “queue jumpers” as Theresa May put it a few days ago.
It is all much more subtle than Europe in the 1920’s and 30’s or South America with its various tin-pot military dictators and coups d’état. We are having to learn to distinguish populism from democracy (though democracy has its limits, because freedom presupposes self-knowledge and nobility of spirit). It is tempting to curtail freedom of religion for Muslims, but would we apply the same laws of secularism to ourselves? We are still at the stage where populism can fizzle out under the weight of its own weakness and incoherence. In some places, it can force mainstream politics to make concessions in regard to some of the desire restrictive policies, but without disturbing the system too much. In other areas, it could mean a situation like the fall of the Weimar Republic between 1929 and 1933 and the rise of Hitler.
According to some articles I read, populism is limited in its influence. I see how careful Macron is being in dealing with the gilets jaunes – keep the police from being too heavy-handed and letting the movement fizzle out in exchange for some compromises. With skilful management, surely levels of support for Le Pen on the right and Melenchon on the far-left will remain tolerable low. The gangs of thugs in Germany and Austria can only make a lot of noise, but the memory of the Nazi regime remains from 1945. Nigel Farange has largely discredited himself and his hypocrisy been demonstrated when it was revealed that his children have obtained German passports to “Brexit-proof” them. One limiting factor is fragmentation and internal conflict. Will the mainstream parties rise to the challenge and find new meaning to their existence other than being run as a business for lucrative ends?
One victim in this new populist movement is the distinction of powers in the modern state: legislative, executive and judicial. No one must be above the law. This is something that went wrong with Sarkozy in France when he and the French Government attempted to take control of the high court in 2007 (Cour de Cassation). My wife knows the legal world well, and has often remarked how badly the legal system was damaged under that government. This is one sign and harbinger of very bad news!
The countries to watch at present are Poland, Hungary, Austria, Italy and Sweden. It may be a wake-up call for the European Union to reform its structures and get its act together. Brexit causes a lot of anxiety across the board, especially if it winds up as a no-deal job next 29th March. Without the EU, what is the alternative? Steve Bannon’s Movement? Might we see a division between central-eastern Europe and western Europe? Revolutions always buckle under the weight of their own instability and lack of any real social philosophy. Much will depend on the ability of the mainstream political scene to reform itself from sleaze, stupidity and other forms of corruption. I am quite chilled by the stupidity and ignorance of most people, or at least a “critical mass” who have been influenced by the demagogues, by fashion and groupthink.
I conclude this little piece with a reflection on the very question of freedom. We all want to be in control of our own lives, and most of us can judge that point where the limit of our freedom is the beginning of the other person’s. Like people under the Hitler regime or in Soviet Russia, we abhor being parts of a machine or tools for an agenda that clearly violates every principle of God and man. Freedom is an insuperable problem at a philosophical level, and it is a reason why I began to explore Nickolai Berdyaev and the German Idealists and Romantics who inspired him. Freedom is a consequence of the nobility of spirit, which comes through self-knowledge and suffering.
I find these themes in the Romantics, in Thomas Mann who faced the totalitarian machine of his country, Oscar Wilde as he struck the wall of Victorian England like a bird hits a window pane. This notion of freedom of perfection, as Fr Pinckaers taught us at Fribourg, is something lofty, noble and inspiring. We will also find a philosophy of the human person in philosophers like Jacques Maritain and Karol Wojtyla. It is the true Christ who is within each one of us. We are free to desire and we desire to be free, free to follow our calling in life and find our purpose. The Machine can only break us and leave us as dead shells of humanity. We get to know ourselves through knowing others, and this is the essential message of cosmopolitanism. This is something the great explorers of old could tell us.
Before going out and disturbing others with slogans and ideologies, we have first to work on ourselves. I will expand on some of these themes in a new article I am working on for the Blue Flower. Self-awareness is a part of that nobility of spirit that comes through the discovery of the divine spark within each of us, which Christ calls the Kingdom within. The Parables in the Gospels bring us nearer to this mystery which is never fully possessed in this fleeting life.
Be yourself! That is the best way to imitate Christ.