Why do you support ethno-nationalism

05/03/2019 | Agnes Heller
In many ways, they are new players. But are they “populists”?

Photo: Arild Vågen
Dear friends,

I have a problem with the term "populism". Perón was a populist, and so was Chavez. But Orbán and his followers are not populists. Populists may be demagogues, but they are actually on the side of the people and not the wealthy. Some totalitarian parties in Europe were also populist, but only initially. In contrast, Orbán and his party have created their own oligarchy, the “nouveau riche,” whose prosperity benefits them entirely as the gap between rich and poor grows larger. Instead, I would speak of a kind of refeudalization. These ethnonationalist parties do not even claim to support the "people"; they support the "nation". They claim to defend the nation against all its enemies such as Soros, Brussels and above all, of course, against liberalism. Declaring liberalism as enemy number one is by no means new. This is what ethnonationalists have in common with totalitarian parties. And yet they are not totalitarian because they do not need to.

Populism or Ethnonationalism?

graphicrecording.cool Accordingly, their identity politics is ethno-nationalistic. For ethnonationalists, in contrast to Aristotle, the “nation” is not composed of the sum of its citizens, but of all those whose ancestors come from the country in question, who are of the same “blood” and feel they belong to a country in that they may never have lived. Like the “Volksdeutsche” who were never resident in Germany, not even in the parents 'and grandparents' generation, but who were still required to show their loyalty to Germany instead of to the country in which they were based. In the eyes of the Hungarian political elite, opposition party supporters are not Hungarians. On the other hand, people who have never lived in Hungary but are of Hungarian origin are considered true Hungarians, provided that they are supporters of Viktor Orbán. Ethnonationalism can easily turn into open racism.

Ethnonationalism has been a widespread ideology in Europe since 1914 and was the real ideological motivation for the First World War. Europe paid hundreds of millions of dead for this war, all Europeans who died at the hands of fellow Europeans.

Indeed, the new ethnonationalists of today differ from those of the first half of the twentieth century in that their ideology is negative. They promise no land gain, no society free from strangers, no happiness for everyone, let alone greatness and grandeur. They promise protection. They pretend to protect their nation from immigrants, from the interference of others in domestic politics and the presumed restriction of national sovereignty on the part of the EU. They are building walls not only against immigrants, as they would like to lead you to believe, but against all other EU countries that do not agree with them.

New parties emerge from nowhere and no longer represent individuals, but rather, according to their own understanding, “the nation” they are defending.

As I mentioned earlier, the main opponent of the ethnonationalists is liberalism. Therefore, as soon as they come to power, they abolish the separation of powers, centralize all decision-making organs as well as the media and education and set up institutions with which they manipulate public opinion (for example through the so-called “national consultations” in Hungary). With this they can establish a dictatorship without having to resort to the weapons of totalitarianism. They are able to do this because they gained power not through violence but through parliamentary elections - not clean elections, but nonetheless. They are elected and re-elected, three times, five times, like Putin, Erdogan, Kaczyński, Sisi and Orbán. All of them consider their presidency to be democratic, since they were elected by a majority or almost a majority. Can that be denied? When I was looking for a name for this form of government, the expression "democrature" came to mind. The word alone is an indication that the term “democracy” needs to be reconsidered.

Democracy has been redefined several times in European history. Originally he was referring to a direct democracy based on the Athenian model. According to Kant, this form of democracy was no longer possible because the states were too large and one could not meet in one place for joint decision-making.

In the United States, the first modern democracy emerged, representative democracy, which only became a liberal democracy with the passage of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Yet many years passed before universal suffrage was introduced. In the nineteenth and especially in the second half of the twentieth century, democracy in the west and later also in southern Europe was equated for decades with a liberalism that included popular sovereignty and universal suffrage. For a time the term “democracy” meant popular sovereignty through universal suffrage, separation of powers and constitutionally guaranteed rights. Now we are experiencing a new metamorphosis in the understanding of democracy.

What happened? In short, the class society has turned into a mass society. Since there are no more classes (and thus no class consciousness), the people have become a “mass”. Traditional parties, conservatives and socialists alike, are losing their electorate. New parties emerge from nowhere and no longer represent individuals, but rather, according to their own understanding, “the nation” they are defending. They win votes through negative ideologies. Negative ideologies are expressions of nihilism. And they are dangerous.

I want to talk about this danger in my next letter. But first of all, I welcome comments on my views, doubts and especially critical remarks.
Ágnes Heller