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Nostalgics, not Nazis but dangerous nonetheless

The upsurge of extreme-right politics on the global stage is alarming. Chris Chatteris SJ looks at a French movement promoting a dangerous and exclusionary worldview that appears, simplistically, to be anti-migrant. But their real qualms are deeper and, perhaps, they need to be heard.

Trump, Putin, Modi, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Johnson. What do they have in common apart from being males? Well, they are leaders of big countries, they got into power through some version of the ballot and they have a certain loose similarity in being populists. The question arises: why has so much of the world gone their way?

An insightful article in The Conversation helps us to understand. It gives a descriptive analysis of the French right-wing movement Génération Identitaire. This group gives an important clue about where the supporters of most of the above-mentioned gentlemen are coming from, whether they are French or American or Russian, etc.

It’s not easy to translate Génération Identitaire. I don’t think it can be done in two words in English, though I’m open to suggestions. My attempt is a paraphrase: “The grouping within the younger generation that is troubled about the loss of its French cultural identity in contemporary France”

“The grouping within the younger generation that is troubled about the loss of its French cultural identity in contemporary France”.

What is this movement doing politically? Like other right-wing movements in the world today, Génération Identitaire takes to the streets and to social media to vent about a perceived erosion of cultural identity.

They blame immigrants and the politicians who permit immigration, for this loss of their cultural sense of self. They say they no longer feel at home in their own countries. They resent what they say are the unfair economic advantages given to newcomers who have no roots in the society and may have never made any contribution to it. They feel left out and left behind.

Their big demand is for a halt to immigration and the repatriation of immigrants. We see Donald Trump responding to this demand in his attempts to restrict immigration of Muslims and Latin Americans.

The Brexit Party in the UK has similar political aims. In Hungary and Poland, it’s the same story. In Russia, we remember the crackdown on the Chechens. In India, the narrative is around Muslims who supposedly are given special treatment while ordinary Hindus are not taken seriously. Modi has been re-elected on a ticket promising to allow Hindus to walk tall and his politics make it clear that only a Hindu is a “proper” Indian.

The anti-immigrant or anti-minority stance is frequently equated with fascism which was virulently racist and there are undoubtedly some supporters of Donald Trump and the others in the list who are neo-fascists inspired by Hitler and Mussolini. But it is important to remember that fascism was a heresy of Marxism and as such had an extremely radical utopian programme to transform the world through eugenics and extermination.

it is important to remember that fascism was a heresy of Marxism and as such had an extremely radical utopian programme to transform the world through eugenics and extermination.

The Génération Identitaire inspiration springs more from culture than political ideology and looks to the past rather than to a future political millennium. They want not so much a “brave new world” as a “brave old world”. There is a nostalgia among them for a quintessential culture (which may have never existed of course) and it is that which they say they wish to defend and restore.

In France, this class of people take their inspiration from two ultra-nationalist figures of the French right of the 19th century, Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras rather than the fascists of the 1930s. These two Frenchmen and their movement had their contemporary scapegoats in the shape of the Jews and this was most viciously manifested in the Dréfus Affair at the turn of the century.

This episode is interesting because it gives the lie to what today’s new right claim, namely that they are not racists. They are, but their racism is mediated through culture, which at first appears to make it more acceptable.

… today’s new right claim, namely that they are not racists. They are, but their racism is mediated through culture, …

Dréfus was a French army officer who was falsely accused of spying for Prussia. As the case dragged on it became obvious that he was innocent and the victim of antisemitism in the French High Command. He was eventually exonerated and served with distinction in the First World War, but not before his case divided France, drawing the political right and left into a huge and protracted legal, journalistic and literary war.

It was a “culture war” but the real agenda was clearly race. The underlying position of the anti-Dréfus party was that Colonel Dréfus had to be guilty because he was Jewish, for no Jew could be a true and patriotic Frenchman.

This is the way the Génération Identitaire people think today. They will say that Muslims cannot really be French and can never become French, or British or Hungarian. They define Frenchness in a narrow, exclusive sense which makes it impossible for members of other ethnic groups or religions to belong. They gloss over the fact that what it means to be French has always evolved and will continue to do so. It is a kind of classicist mentality in which the definition of what is “classical” is ultimately arbitrary.

Does this make them tamer than the fascists? Yes, but they are dangerous nonetheless partly because of those who associate with them. Their more extreme fellow-travellers have committed some appallingly violent acts, attacking immigrants and assassinating politicians such as Jo Cox in the UK.

Does this make them tamer than the fascists? Yes, but they are dangerous nonetheless partly because of those who associate with them.

As we have seen, for example in the US or India, once their leaders get into power, it becomes dangerous for minorities, and especially immigrants. To say that their politics are rooted in nostalgia makes them sound like an ineffectual, dreamy lot. But minorities would demur and the fact that they have managed to get their leaders elected in liberal Western democracies should give us pause.

So, should centrist or even left-wing politicians tack to the right to draw them away from their extremist allies? A dangerous move and some European conservatives seem to be realising this.

Hitler came to power thanks to such a gambit. Rather, we need first to understand them and the depth of cultural alienation that they feel. They depict themselves as being dismissed or condescended to by what they call the “élites”. Maybe they are.

In a huge political blunder, Hillary Clinton referred to Trump supporters as “deplorables” thus confirming their view of the Democrats as part of the élite liberal establishment. Politicians cannot afford to make such mistakes in the present climate. To stoke their sense of resentment is to give them free political ammunition. They thrive on victimhood.

To stoke their sense of resentment is to give them free political ammunition. They thrive on victimhood.

They also feel victimised by the economic system which they also see as being run by the same élites (though Trump, despite his wealth, seems somehow exempt). Hence, as a matter of urgency, Western politicians need to focus on the problem of inequality and the exclusion it breeds.

The sense of cultural exclusion can only be exacerbated by a feeling of being excluded from the economy. A fairer crack of the economic whip would give them a greater sense of security and belonging and would lessen their need to seek that security in their cultural bunker and in the sense of solidarity they find among fellow culture-warriors.

Does this translate into South African terms?

I believe so. If Julius Malema ever becomes the president of this country, it will be through the same manipulation of cultural and economic resentment against the white, coloured and Indian minorities (élites) and might even include a dose of xenophobia against immigrant communities from neighbouring African countries. Above all, it will be through the manipulation of a sense of historic resentment at having been despoiled of land (a cipher for culture).

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France, part of which was at the L’Arche Community of Jean Vanier fame. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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