As a native German who moved to Sweden some years ago, I am trying to follow the public debate in both countries. Interestingly, right now both Germany and Sweden experience a wave of right-wing populism. Other European countries are seeing similar things happening. In Germany this trend is mainly represented by the advances of the new protest party AFD in some federal states as well as by the recent anti-islamization demonstrations (which, as it turns out, are less about well informed criticism of institutional religious extremism but about sheer xenophobia). Meanwhile in Sweden the right-wing populist party Sweden Democrats scored almost 13 percent in the recent parliamentary election. That result eventually led to a government crisis and the announcement of new elections planned for March 2015. In the public debate, members and supporters of the party, whose major goals are to strictly limit immigration to Sweden and to promote patriotism, have more confidence than ever before.
Much has been written about the reasons for the rise of (right-wing) populism in Europe. What is happening in Germany and Sweden right now is part of a major trend. I would describe it as the desire for simple solutions as well as for turning back the time to the “good old days”. The time when everything worked, when there were enough jobs, when most of the population had the same ethnical and cultural background, when the world order was seemingly easy to understand even for less politically interested people.
The public comments made by supporters of the neo-reactionary European movement reveal a host of perceived issues with the modern societes: Mass immigration is seen as a problem (oddly enough especially in those areas where only small numbers of immigrants live), as are feminism, the alleged manipulation through the media and the decrease in national autonomy due to the increased power of the European Union. There also is high regard for all kinds of conspiracy theories.
Essentially, sympathizers of this movement have lost their trust into the overall functioning and integrity of the society’s “operative system”. Instead they have created their own realities and “truths”. Ironically they are as convinced about their “truths” as their big enemy, the jihadist, is convinced about his beliefs. The similarities are astonishing.
The major cause that I see for this situation is the illusion that the clock can be turned back; that a complicated world characterized by highly interconnected interests, conflicts and power dynamics as well as by inequality, mass job-cuts due to automation, by religious tension, climate change and ongoing economic crises, can be fixed and brought back to balance with the recipes of the past. Or actually with one recipe of the past: Not letting too many foreigners moving in.
Those who spend a bit more time trying to understand today’s world without adding too much personal emotions and who consider different disciplines and dimensions, will necessarily come to the conclusion that there is no way back. Things will never be again the way there were. Genie is out of the bottle. For better or worse.
That’s the kind of fact that needs to be accepted by the reactionary movements’ supporters. This acceptance does not mean giving up on the idea of a better, more fair, more peaceful world. On the contrary: The world never was good, fair or peaceful (our memory is playing lots of tricks on us). But with all the new possibilities, technologies and scientific advancements, it could become – if people do not keep working against each other as much, and if they realize that holding on to the past won’t work because the world around their country’s borders won’t stop moving forward.
Politicians, society leaders and intellectual influencers have failed massively to create confidence into the future; they have failed to create a positive narrative that unifies people through an ambitious common goal, and to make sure that everybody has understood that there is no way of moving back anymore. Once that broad consensus has been reached, future discussions would be less poisonous, less tensioned and less destructive.