This chapter provides insights into the broader context of the Eastern German experiences since the reunification in 1989. Post-reunification life in Eastern Germany proves to be a crucial backdrop to explain why people there feel particularly disenfranchised and why this is coming to a head now. The transition to a united Germany was full of broken promises of ‘blooming landscapes’, disappointments and sentiments of one’s own past being devalued by Western Germans. We trace the prevailing narratives about ‘the East’ that have emerged along with massive structural changes. Today the deindustrialised and depopulated landscapes not only provide new spaces for a returning wildlife including wolves but also reveal the complete economic, political and cultural change for millions of people who may have won a peaceful revolution but lost their country in the process. We explore the popularity-gaining narrative depicting the aftermath of the peaceful revolution as a sign of imperialism by Western Germans who have come to take over the East to then move on to despise the locals whom they subjugated. Furthermore, we investigate the narrative that angry, ‘left-behind’ people are to blame for the rise of nationalism in the East, because they have been supposedly more affected by the large-scale transitions since 1989. We argue that the narratives about ‘the East’ we present in this chapter are not the only ones representative of people’s lived and recounted reality, yet they demonstrate the contested nature of ‘the East’ as a narrative trope in searching for explanations for the rise of the right. Eastern Germany is not in dire straits, but many of the circulating narratives claim it to be.
In this chapter we discuss state- and states-sponsored reactions to these political shifts, affecting policies, civil society and journalism. In particular we look at the governance of right-wing nationalism in a country that is widely thought of as having successfully denazified itself and come to terms with its troubled past. The fight-back by different state agents, organisations, politicians and institutions is broad and multifaceted. The goal is to influence civil society by setting a clear line between problematic (‘Nazi’) nationalism and acceptable, civilised, nationalism. To the well-researched theme of the governance of German nationalism, we add the Eastern German perspective, which is not entirely aligned with the federal perspective – mainly due to a historically different understanding of the ‘problematic’ German nation and the second German dictatorship, which leads to greater attention to the governance of ‘problematic’ nationalisms. Partially in response to this, we develop a case study of the leftist Eastern German ‘anti-German’ movement, which has not received much attention in academic studies in the anglophone world.
Our investigation begins by situating the analysis offered in the book within the burgeoning field of academic studies on populism. While acknowledging common ground with other recent investigations, it is made clear that the general argument of the book stands at odds with the current consensus on populism as a fundamentally reactionary, nationalistic, or even straightforwardly xenophobic mode of contemporary politics. In sharp contrast to this dominant view, the underlying argument advanced in the book is that contemporary populism in the UK is a reaction to the decades-long process of neoliberalization, which began with Thatcher in the 1980s and was consolidated with Blair and New Labour between 1997 and 2010. As a result of this process, the British working class was essentially rendered homeless within the UK by a Labour Party increasingly anxious to distance itself from its heritage of working-class struggle and labour-union organization. The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2000s articulated a certain disenchantment among the British working class about the established parties. The Great Recession beginning in 2008, and the period of Conservative-led austerity politics it ushered in, further alienated the working class from the political establishment and gave rise to the populist sentiment given consummate expression in the Brexit referendum result of 2016. The introduction concludes with a synopsis of each of chapter in the book.
The wolves are returning to Germany, while German politics are transforming. The right-wing Alternative for Germany is now the third biggest party in the German parliament. It draws much of its support from places that have been referred to as the ‘post-traumatic places’ in Eastern Germany, structured by realities of disownment, disfranchisement and a lack of political representation. With right-wing populist parties being on the rise everywhere in Europe, politicians, journalists and scholars have become dedicated to diagnosing a crisis of democracy. With this book, we offer an in-depth perspective on the theme of democracy in crisis through the prism of wolf politics in early twenty-first-century Eastern Germany. Investigating fringe political movements, the political agitation against both migrants and wolves, the perspectives of Eastern German hunters, farmers, rioters and self-appointed saviours of the nation, the book attempts to move beyond easy stereotypes and explanations and unravel the deep story of why Eastern German politics is shifting to the right. The returning wolves serve both as metaphor and analytical tool to further an understanding of the logics and sentiments that underlie the rise of the right in Eastern German politics.
This chapter turns to the founding figures and works of British cultural studies, in which a renewed conceptualization of the working class was achieved. Richard Hoggart’s (1957) The Uses of Literacy blazed a trail in the academic portrayal of British working-class culture. This analysis highlights the very feature commonly identified as the hallmark of the populist collective consciousness: an unremitting and radical polarization between the ‘Them’ of the political establishment and the ‘Us’ of the working-class populace. Hoggart’s 1950s analysis also foresaw the danger of a creeping capitalist commercialization of the British working-class lifeworld, particularly through the workings of the popular mass media. His contemporary, Raymond Williams, a fellow cultural studies pioneer, complements and amplifies this analysis with his idea of democratic popular culture as a ‘long revolution’. It is the revolution of popular control over the material conditions of everyday life that constitutes Williams’s notion of progressive democracy, an idea I adopt and apply to contemporary populism throughout this book. With the advent of Thatcherite neoliberalism in the UK, this revolution is stalled as the idea of collective responsibility and the practices of working-class solidarity are denigrated and steadily eroded.
Having charted the background and growth of British populism from nineteenth-century worker agitation to discontent with the gig economy of the 2010s, this chapter offers a concluding prognosis of the possible future of UK liberal democracy in the wake of Brexit-based populism. Bringing together the two threads of cultural denigration and economic marginalization of the working class, the question arises: how can contemporary populism be channelled into a renewal of democratic political culture? Here I consider the complex and influential interventions of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2016) and Paul Mason (2015), which have in common the notion that the current wave of automation sweeping through the global economy has the potential to lead us out of the prevailing pattern of mass material scarcity and deprivation. One of the mechanisms seen as pivotal to such a transition is a radical and scalable programme of universal basic income (UBI). I reject this solution as untenable, in part because it represents an extension of André Gorz’s (2012) earlier and, I contend, implausible argument that the very idea of the ‘working class’ should be abandoned as automating technology and structural unemployment make work a less politically significant reality. While leftist commentators and theorists may criticize the legacy of Marxism for enthroning a ‘labour theory of value’, the lived reality of the working class cannot be so easily severed from its connections to socially meaningful work. In other words, progressive populism cannot, I contend, take the form of a world beyond work.
I begin the analysis of populism by outlining and defending a certain conception of democracy. This does not involve a typology of forms of democracy – direct as opposed to representative democracy, and so forth – but rather delineates what I consider the animating principle and, to some extent, paradox of democracy, namely popular sovereignty. Here the theory is largely drawn from two sources: on the one hand, from the democratic theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe and, on the other, from the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière. While there are important differences between these thinkers, the crucial commonality is an idea of democratic politics as based on radical dissent that constantly contests given political legitimacy. What Rancière, in particular, highlights, is the inherent tension within any democratic polity between the bureaucratic managers and the enfranchised electorate. The former project a ‘born to rule’ sense of entitled social and technocratically grounded political legitimacy, while the latter contest this privilege in the name of no qualification other than their being present within the political community. This latter claim on behalf of an ‘unqualified’ electorate lies at the heart of the intersection between constitutional democracy and populism. On this basis, it is argued that populism is an inalienable feature of democracy and not an extraneous element bent on its destruction. In other words, populism is construed as essential rather than alien to democracy.
This chapter focuses on the far right’s imaginaries about “the East” in the context of the history of Heimat, the politics of renaturing and the national socialist and new right-wing views on natural habitats for the German ethnos and German flora and fauna. Western Germans are recruited to move to the white enclaves in the East, as the land is cheap, institutions easy to take over and the country so unpopulated that social control is minimised. The land stands for more than just agricultural opportunities: the blood and soil logics amount to a geo-determinism, the idea that a people ‘belongs to’ a particular land. Unless the right people till the soil and defend their habitat, the habitat will be lost and the people will go extinct. We explain what it is like in parts of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg in ‘white’ villages, and hear from a hunter who explains that the AfD is not about to solve the problem of representation but is still more attractive than any other party. The turn of nationalist (West) Germans to the East to repopulate the imagined ‘empty lands’ goes hand in hand with ideas of ‘purification’ of German territories and strong anti-immigration, anti-globalisation, anti-system and anti-cosmopolitan attitudes. As we talked to different people who were, in some way or another, affected by the wolf issue, among them farmers, hunters, local residents in rural areas and conservationists, the micro-politics that relates to the wolf problem is revealed.
How are we to understand the recent rise of populism in Britain and beyond? In this book, philosopher Brian Elliott traces the roots of contemporary populism back to the waves of intensified globalization and deindustrialization that began in the 1970s and early 1980s. This period of our political history witnessed a radical transformation of democratic party politics, where the potential for organized labour to influence high-level politics was diminished. The Reagan–Thatcher era brought about a neoliberal reconfiguration of the democratic state that weakened or destroyed traditional sources of working-class social and cultural capital. In the UK, the Labour Party was transformed through a ‘Third Way’ agenda under the leadership of Tony Blair. The long-term consequence of this has been an inexorable undermining of working-class support for the party and a notable drift towards Conservative-led anti-European Union sentiment. Populism, in the UK and elsewhere, should not simply be attributed to increasing nationalism, nativism and xenophobia among the working-class electorate. It also gives voice to a desire to make the political class more directly accountable to the people it is meant to serve. At the same time, the populist wave is a reaction to a decades-long denigration of working-class lives and culture. Charting seminal episodes in the rise of the British working class in light of recent sociological and political analyses of the nature of work, the analysis offered in this book grants to contemporary populism a deeper and more coherent meaning.
The final chapter summarises the argument of the book and provides answers to our guiding questions. What does the trope of the wolf tell us about the state of democracy in Eastern Germany? Why is anti-establishmentarianism prevalent in rural areas? And why does it seem to be more prevalent in Eastern Germany? And ultimately, how can we understand the re-emergence and strengthening of nationalist and xenophobic attitudes and political actors in Eastern German in more depth?