3 August 2015

The populist New Right is taking hold in Germany


I have been offline for quite a while. I am sorry. The reason was not a lengthy vacation, which would have been enjoyable. Instead, the reason was my involvement in a – still ongoing – battle against the populist “New Right”, a movement that has been gaining momentum over the past couple of years.

It found its first outlet in the “AfD” (Alternative for Germany), a new party created in 2013 as a reaction to the bailout for Greece, and began to be very visible during the winter of 2014, as thousands of people took to the streets in so-called “Pegida” (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) marches.

Here on CapX, I have reported on both. Somehow, this movement has also managed to have a disturbing impact on the “Friedrich A. von Hayek Gesellschaft”, a liberal academic association which I had been presiding for four years – until I quit in protest, on July 14th, 2015.

Like a sponge, the New Right movement has seemed to soak up many self-declared enemies of modernity, whether they are fundamentalist Christians or frustrated political losers, retirees with too much time, contrarians by principle or just plain weirdos. What unites them is their anger.

Most of them hold a grudge against something – “the system”, the “political establishment” and the “lying press”. They use inflammatory speech to pester against the bulk of foreign immigrants, especially Muslims; against homosexuals, Jews, Blacks, Americans, ecologists, free trade, modern “genderism” and whatnot. A new designation has emerged: “Wutbürger” (angry citizens). This New Right movement has brought back nationalism, xenophobia and racism, intolerance and physical violence. Only last weekend, a gay couple, holding hands in public, was beaten up right in the center of Berlin.

During the first days of July, the AfD experienced a dramatic showdown. The founder of the party, an economics professor from Hamburg, Bernd Lucke, lost out in the race for leadership against Frauke Petry, a young Eastern lady with an obvious political talent. Their rivalry was not merely a personal matter; it was more about securing the power to steer the party in one political direction or another.

While Lucke considers himself a mainstream conservative with a liberal approach to markets, Frauke Petry is more than happy to cater to the new, more and more radical right – and she receives ample support. After having been ousted, Lucke and his supporters left the AfD and set out to undertake a fresh political venture, this time called “Alfa” (Alliance for progress and a new start). Lucke, in a way, has fallen victim to the right-wing radicalization within the AfD membership, a development that he had, at least at the beginning, quite intentionally invited and encouraged. A terrible mistake.

The scope of these developments, however, is much larger than the AfD. The New Right is expanding rapidly. It is easily detectable when its adherents gather in new institutions that have been created precisely to that effect; it is of course much less easy to point out when long-existing institutions with a different purpose fall under their capture. Odd as this might seem, the New Right typically seeks an alliance with old-fashioned liberals and radical fringe libertarians.

There is indeed one programmatic overlap: the conviction that the State needs to be rolled back. Along the lines of Friedrich Hayek and other classics, liberals like myself do indeed emphasize the beneficial effects of market procedures. Whatever government undertakes, it invariably runs the risk of committing a pretense of knowledge, whereas voluntary spontaneous interaction might hopefully open the door to social progress.

Ultraconservative as they are, the New Right however isn’t keen on progress, quite to the contrary. These people aim to roll back the State merely because they read it as an essentially “socialist” institution that endorses, actively fosters and even brings about a kind of social progress they profoundly abhor: a growing female labour force, with women neglecting their “natural destiny” and giving birth to fewer children than in the old days; a broad multiculturalism that erodes national identity; an undue tolerance toward the “sin” of homosexuality; the spread of unorthodox life-styles; value pluralism and general moral decay.

They see the traditional Christian family, the “seedbed of the nation”, under constant attack. In their eyes, Western civilization is breaking up (and down) as a consequence of obscure, dangerous conspiracies at work everywhere. In order to save the world, these people thus beat the drums for a “Re-evangelisation of the Occident”, together with a strict ban on immigration. They admire only one single politician, Russia’s Wladimir Putin, for restoring national pride, order and tradition. If all States were like his, they wouldn’t need to be rolled back.

None of this is liberal. So what has all this to do with an association created in 1998 and named after Friedrich Hayek, the famous 1974 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, a classical liberal Austrian economist and social philosopher whose valuable intellectual heritage it is the Hayek Society’s task to develop, further and spread? Nothing – if it wasn’t for a rather significant number of influential non-academic members of the Hayek Society who do not only ignore the need to dissociate themselves from the New Right but also readily adopt its rude tone and manners.

Resentment, a spirit of sexism and discrimination, intrigues and calumny suddenly abound. Hints of such a disturbing climate have been present earlier, but they seemed manageable. Recently, however, things went out of hand.

While not aiming at the Hayek Society (and not even mentioning it), I must have hit a nerve when I published an essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on May 17th, 2015, urging that people from the liberal intellectual milieu in general, so habituated to fighting the left, should also open their eyes to the novel threats from the New Right – and keep them at bay. Theirs is a political neighbourhood that liberals should be wary of and avoid, I warned.

Classical liberalism – at least as I understand it – is based on an essential methodological as well as normative individualism, which necessarily implies open-mindedness, tolerance, respect and, why not, a minimum of civil manners.

Without such a welcoming attitude towards other people, whatever their national, cultural, religious or social backgrounds and their personal lifestyles, the Open Society that liberalism aims to make possible seems to me unthinkable. Not so for many (though not all) members of the Hayek Society, as I was shocked to learn – way too many for my taste.

What we experienced there as a consequence of my essay was a perfectly orchestrated shitstorm; an open letter urging the traitor (me, obviously) to resign; and a members’ meeting bubbling with commotion, yelling and disruption. In the end, I left the once so distinguished Hayek Society, together with four other board persons and more than sixty other members (out of 320), most of them well-renowned scholars and politicians; among them Otmar Issing, former chief economist of the European Central Bank. The impressive list, published on July 14th, 2015, can be viewed online. In the future, there will be other, and much better, ways to promote academic research in a liberal spirit. I’ll keep you posted.

Karen Horn is a German author, journalist and lecturer in the History of Economic Thought