Belgium -Brussels – All that is solid melts into air – stated Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. From time to time this slogan resurfaces when a feeling of something new beginning and the old well-known world crumbling down spreads in politics and society. The events of the past few years provided us with good reasons to think that the world is turning upside-down in terms of society, culture and politics. Extreme conservative PiS took over in Poland, mimicking Orbán’s illiberal democracy, the United Kingdom is leaving the Union, in the United States voters elected a billionaire lacking any kind of political experience and not shying away from racist comments. Next year France could elect Europe’s first far-right president, in Italy the 5Stars party might nominate the next Prime Minister, and in the Netherlands, an extremely nationalistic and xenophobic party is leading the opinion polls. Due to all of this, a lot of people feel like something has changed fundamentally and the election of Trump marks the beginning of a new world. The significance of the US elections cannot be underestimated and we can only guess about its consequences. But one thing is for sure. If the world has changed, it is not the because of the outcome of the US election. Trump’s election is more of a climax, a result or a consequence of a political and sociological process at least a decade long, of the spread of anti-modernisation, anti-progressive far right populism, the significance of which we did not recognize or just did not take seriously. But now we have to face the fact that the liberal democratic principles guiding post-World War II Europe and the Trans-Atlantic world are in grave (fatal?) danger, its achievements, values and norms rejected by a growing portion of the society. Therefore, the world, Europe and the supporters of democracy have to face previously unknown challenges today.
The political structure of modern societies and the political arena have undergone significant changes. The formerly successful centre-left and centre-right parties are in deep trouble. They are visibly struggling to face current challenges, and their answers are frequently inadequate. Far-right populism is on the rise however, for multiple reasons. One of the likely factors is the diffusion of the so called post-factual, or post-truth politics.
With this expression we mark a political culture, in which politics (public opinion, and narratives spread by media) completely depart from policy (policy substance, issues). Political debates aim to influence emotions, while factual reasoning and the interpretations of experts have no place in this, their importance is dwindling. Further, consistently and constantly repeated emotions and impressions become facts. To be blunt, conscious lies become the truth in the eyes of the public. Party manifestos, programmes containing detailed issue-based policy solutions are becoming irrelevant. This is the kind of politics that made Trump win the election, and what keeps working so well for the Orbán-government in Hungary. This political culture is probably the most effective weapon of today’s far-right. By rousing people’s emotions with hate speech, fear-mongering and crafting enemy images of ‘others versus us’ they influence voter perceptions, which they then proclaim as their priority instead of facts. The Orbán government’s handling of the refugee crisis in Hungary was a prime example for this kind of strategy. But Marine Le Pen in France, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are following the same path.
Of course, there are other reasons for the rise of far-right populism. For example, the fact that in many European countries there is a strong demand for these messages, this political culture. For some time now it has been clear, although we’ve glossed over it, that globalisation and the transformation of modern societies produce not only winners but losers as well.
The changes in our society went hand in hand with changes and decrease in our industrial production, and this in turn transformed the kind of skills and knowledge demanded in the labour markets, and caused a re-evaluation of labour itself. The harsh realisation came to many that they do not have the kind of marketable, useful skills required in the transformed labour market. The knowledge (expertise, skills, call it however you want) that had previously been enough, did not guarantee the secure standard of living and status that it used to; it has lost its value and meaning in this new world.
These workers could only find underpaid jobs at best, or in the worst case, no job at all. On the other hand, the same group of people had to learn that their chances for gaining the knowledge necessary for upward mobility were severely limited. They had become the class of the working poor and they had to face the fact that whatever they did, they kept getting poorer, and they effectively lost their prospects for a future. What’s left for them in their desperate situation is anger and despair. These people live in insecurity and fear. And this fear, fear of change, of losing status, of strangers, of a hostile and incomprehensible world, of the future, corrodes societal trust and the consensus keeping society together, society’s core values themselves, inevitably causing a grievous weakening of social cohesion. Therefore, the most urgent question for us in politics is how can we, in this torn-apart world, reinstate and maintain social cohesion? In today’s Europe, the common task for all democratic parties is to consistently fight far-right populism. We have to articulate political messages that provide hope and a vision for the future for the groups of people feeling excluded and insecure. These people want security and care, so our message for them needs to be that this security can be achieved, recovered in today’s world as well. Not with cheap and infeasible promises, not through fear-mongering and creating enemies, but with new progressive political emphasis and approach. We have to make them understand that when they lend their political and electoral support for populist promises, they are acting against their own interests. For we do not need more social divisiveness and confrontation, indeed, what we need is the exact opposite; we need to recreate integration, social inclusion and our common social values. We have to articulate as our political goal that in this changed world we want to create a new alliance on the pillars of progress and solidarity, societal security and liberty. The main goal of this new alliance is to decrease social inequalities, to provide real opportunities for those who were left behind, to create a new welfare-state. We want for these people to be able to participate in the life of their society, to be able to shape their own lives as they want it, and for them not to have to rely on the government and its institutions, living precariously on benefits. We have to represent this new welfare-state that abolishes social division, and provides real social security, predictability, and long-term prosperity for everyone. If we cannot achieve this, the Europe we have struggled to build after World War II is truly at its end.