“The People” as Strangers in their Own Country

12.9.18 / Text
Historian Anton Jäger on community, populism, and compassion fatigue

Comic by Cem Dinlenmiş*

Anton Jäger in conversation with Katalin Erdödi and Övül Ö. Durmusoglu (Curators, steirischer herbst)

Katalin Erdödi: In Human Landscapes from My Country, Nâzım Hikmet portrays “people” as a polyphonic and fragmented, but also polarized and tension-ridden collectivity, with a radically compassionate and empathic approach—perhaps one of the reasons why he was often called a “romantic Communist.” How do you see the relevance of his approach in terms of thinking about coexistence and collectivity today, in a broader European context? Could an increasingly politicized engagement with human compassion and empathy respond to the current fragmentation and polarization of societies?

Anton Jäger: I definitely think an emphasis on “multiplicity” has not lost its usefulness today. Liberal thinkers such as Pierre Rosanvallon and Jürgen Habermas have always insisted on the idea that the “people” implicit in the idea of “popular sovereignty” can only “express itself in the plural,” or can only sing its song “polyphonously,” etc. So I think this feeling needs to be retained in order not to reduce European history to a homogeneous, one-sided affair. But I feel a slight uneasiness when this call for multiplicity is coupled with an explicit injunction to “celebrate” diversity, certainly today. Politically, the last twenty years have proven the complete exhaustion of the category of “diversity,” which has been used to obscure the increasing homogenization of our capitalist world. In Europe, we might live in societies that are ethnically very diverse. But they are also societies that are increasingly homogeneous economically—i.e., they show an increasing split between haves and have-nots. To insist on a language of “diversity” today thus can easily lead us to the idea that the Turkish owner of a telecommunications company has the same interests as a German postal worker of Turkish descent. A similar problem holds for the political potential of “empathy.” Let me cite an example: I think the episode with the Kurdish toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose dead body was photographed lying on a beach at the height of the European “refugee crisis,” illustrates this problem quite well. Rather than proving an incentive to act, the call for empathy implicit in the photo in fact had a paralyzing effect. And since the left insisted on seeing the “refugee issue” as a matter of humanitarianism, and not one of people fleeing for rights and freedom, all we can do is outbid each other with calls for compassion. This demonstrates what the French thinker Didier Fassin has called our contemporary “compassion fatigue.” We have become tired of feeling bad for people, and we find it hard to introduce a hierarchy in this universe of pain.

KE: In Austria, the notion of “people,”, in German “Volk,” is troubled by twentieth-century history, in particular by the legacy of Austrofascism, as well as the country’s alliance with Nazi Germany. Politicians on the right as well as the left are uncomfortable with using this word today. At the same time, the word “Heimat” (which roughly translates as “home” or “homeland”) seems to be experiencing a revival and is used more and more frequently, by both the right and the left—the election campaign of the current president Alexander van der Bellen being just one example. Has “Heimat” become a dangerous stand-in for “Volk,”, often masking nationalist-protectionist rhetoric under a seemingly unifying and positivist premise?

AJ: I think we ought to be attentive to the fact that words such as ‘homeland’ or “Heimat” are often compensation for more ambitious forms of community. A particular community comes to stand in for a universal one. Historically, one can clearly observe this logic in Germany, for instance. In the aftermath of the abortive 1918–1919 revolution—in which the German proletariat came painfully close to kick-starting a world revolution—Nazi leaders insisted on trading the language of the “working class” for that of “the people” or “Volk.” It was clear that this was not only a cynical move to incorporate the proletariat into the camp of reaction. It was also an attempt to extend the proletariat’s insertion into the Volksgemeinschaft, or “people’s community.” It had to make them forget that the burdens of the war were unequally shared by different parts of the German population. “Let us not talk about the working classes,” the Nazis stated, “and let us talk about the people instead.” The only difference to our current situation is that our present crisis was in no way preceded by a general moment of radicalization. In fact, radical politics has been at a low ebb for at least forty years, if not longer.

I think the French philosopher Guy Debord provides a valuable perspective here. Back in 1981, he claimed that the very demarcation between “immigrants” and “natives” had become nonsensical in a French context. Due to globalization and the further expansion of the world market, French workers had already become “strangers in their own country.” This also meant, of course, that the rise of the National Front was more than an instance of French “xenophobia.” The French did not hate foreigners because they were “different” or “extraneous.” Rather, he claimed, their hatred was a form of externalized narcissism. They recognized their own rootlessness in the figure of the refugee. Yet instead of proclaiming solidarity with people who share their fate, they started to vent hatred on immigrants as a substitute for a more burdensome form of self-loathing.

I think Debord’s diagnosis of xenophobia as an inverted form of self-hatred helps us understand the logic of racism in Europe today. No one truly feels at home in today’s world. Even if some Europeans still share the blessing of generous welfare systems, their influence on the political process has dwindled significantly in the last thirty years. One can be a slave and still be well fed, so to speak. But the fact of unfreedom remains. And since a lot of people experience their own unfreedom as an instance of disorientation (or rootlessness), scapegoating is the only emotionally expedient solution.

Övül Ö. Durmusoglu: Given the constant slippage of political tools and their meanings, are we to expect another turn to populism?

AJ: With regard to a “slippage of meaning,” I think there is an immense amount of bad faith at work in the current use of the word “populism.” This word has a long and tortuous history, and is burdened by a lot of normative baggage. In the 1980s, the introduction of the word “populism” into French political vocabulary effectively helped the National Front transform from a far-right splinter group to a popular mass party (which now has a solid third of the French electorate under its wing). But not only does it purify the extreme right, as we have seen in recent years. It also shifts the blame for today’s racism from the elite to the working class. If the National Front is “populist,” and thereby speaks for “the people,” it is obvious that it is not engaged in the business of constructing a popular will in the first place and is simply expressing a preexisting desire in the French population. As such, the French “people” become the prime scapegoat for the racism of the Front. This obscures the institutional and economic logic of racism, which often is of great benefit to an existing plutocracy. The conclusion seems unavoidable: If it’s merely “people” who are racist, disenfranchising them will automatically bring about a peaceful reign of tolerance.

As to your question about the “p-word,” I definitely think “populism” is here to stay. Not only because a lot of “populist” politicians (whatever the word means) are far more talented and insightful than their anti-populist colleagues—one only needs to look at the shameful performances of a Jean-Claude Juncker, for instance, to find ample evidence for this statement. But also because, structurally at least, populism has the wind in its sails. Party membership has been declining for over thirty years. Participation rates in elections are at an all-time low. Economic policy has been completely insulated from any popular control, as the Frankfurt ECB demonstrates so acutely. Salaries continue to stagnate. At the same time, social media create an illusion of directness and control, instantiated by violent debates on Twitter, with practically no influence on policy. None of these processes shows any sign of abating in the coming years. Yet not only are populists the only ones to convincingly discuss these phenomena. Their organizations are also perfectly tailored to this new situation. The Dutch PVV (run by Geert Wilders) does not even allow members to join—it’s simply a “support group” with “followers.” The Italian Lega and Five Star Movement run their own online referenda, but without any certificates of validity. They merely serve to approve of decisions taken on a whim by the party elite. Populists know which way the wind is blowing, and they clearly have set their sails in that direction.

ÖÖD: Do you see a possibility for what is identified as “the left” to reclaim its ground in Europe?

AJ: Here I have to default to a saying by the German philosopher Max Horkheimer: “I do not think that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” The prospects for a left-wing revival look quite grim at the moment. The Syriza experiment has ended in nihilism. The Italian left has still not recovered from its Clintonite transformation in the 1990s. The Dutch left is split between a yuppified youth wing (Groenlinks) and a managerialist, Blairite core (PVDA). There are, of course, glimmers of hope. The Belgian PTB has revitalized itself as the last representative of the union movement in the country. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise has finally begun discussing questions of political economy and power relations in the Eurozone. In Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht’s Aufstehen movement has asked questions pertaining to economic sovereignty, which are of key importance regarding the euro, for instance.

At the same time, a lot of these movements have set themselves limits that are at times hard to transcend. Although there needs to be a reckoning with the national level, it is impossible to contest the current regime without a concerted transnational strategy. Recent attempts at constructing a new “international” have all proved illusory. And even the fight for moderate reform can prove to be revolutionary today, as someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates (perhaps because today, both reform and revolution seem to have become equally unlikely). Or, as Karl Kraus put it, our situation might be best characterized as “hopeless but not dramatic.”


Anton Jäger (1994, Brussels) is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. He works on the history of populism in the United States and contemporary debates on state theory. His writings have appeared in magazines such as Jacobin, De Groene Amsterdammer, and The New Pretender. He lives in Colchester, England.

*Comic by Cem Dinlenmiş, in: Nach dem Putsch: 16 Anmerkungen zur „neuen“ Türkei, ed. Ilker Ataç, Michael Fanizadeh, and Volkan Agar (Vienna: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2018)