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Plagued by Chaos: An Inside View on the Anti-lockdown Protests

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/10/2020 - 3:00am in

Tags 

far right, Protest

‘Alright, who here has been sending death threats to the premier?’ asked Cushla in an encrypted chat set up by anti-lockdown protesters to avoid police surveillance. ‘We should take hanging nooses to the next protest like they did in Lebanon’, said Jane, as the protesters discussed tactics on how best to dismantle the lockdown policy in place across Victoria.

‘This is why our guns were taken away’, said David, ‘so commie rat bastards can control everything we do’.

This is typical of the kind of discourse that has characterised an anti-lockdown movement made up of disparate groups with often contradictory agendas. Even while Victoria’s restrictions look to be eased, the movement has maintained momentum as protesters share misinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech.

Months ago, I joined several Facebook groups where members pushed an agenda against vaccinations and modern medicine under the leadership of New Age wellness influencers such as the Wintersteins and chef Pete Evans. This ‘tribe’, as they refer to themselves, began to converge with several far-right groups that had similar grievances about the lockdown.

The convergence has created some seemingly strange bedfellows, as far-right senator Pauline Hanson sought new allies from within the anti-establishment wellness community by declaring her opposition to vaccinations. Meanwhile, chef Pete Evans, who has questioned the existence of the pandemic while spruiking an expensive light machine he claims can cure the virus, has found an ideological ally in Alan Jones. Posts by self-proclaimed ‘Ozraeli’ and right-wing provocateur Avi Yemini are shared frequently by the group, as are those by neo-Nazi Blair Cottrell, suggesting that the movement is confused as to who their intellectual leaders are.

These seemingly disparate sections of Australian society are united by their shared scepticism about peer-reviewed science, a distrust of mainstream media, a belief in a deep state and a performative spirituality that elevates them above the ‘unawakened’. 

‘Dear Woke Community’, member AKL posted. ‘It is scientifically proven that meditation alone or in a group not only provides mental and physical well-being, but also decreases warfare and terrorism.’ Another member contributed her ‘food for thought’, claiming ‘the Covid virus has a vibration of 5.5hz and dies above 25.5 Hz. For humans with a higher vibration, the virus infection is a minor irritant that will soon go away’. Suggested remedies for activating one’s ‘merkaba’ included meditation, yoga and tai chi, with the well-received message concluding with a ‘Namaste’.

In the lead-up to anti-lockdown demonstrations in September, Victoria Police cracked down on would-be leaders of the movement, charging several protesters with incitement. Fearing surveillance on Facebook, there was a mass exodus of the group to the largely unmoderated encrypted network known as Telegram, famous for its use by Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

With mass gatherings outlawed across Victoria, leaders of the movement looked to invoke the same ‘Be Water’ tactics popularised in Hong Kong, where impeccably organised protesters converged and dispersed quickly like a flash mob. Hong Kong protesters have successfully implemented a decentralised, leaderless model using Telegram and other technologies, but in Australia these methods have  largely failed

Raven wrote, ‘Better to have a large, brave, still crowd who are bullied into a huddle and arrested’—an option not possible in Hong Kong, where protesters face years of imprisonment for demonstrating.

An anti-lockdown demonstration intended to take place at the Shrine of Remembrance was called off after protesters announced via Telegram that the area had been swamped by authorities, instead suggesting they move to a park in Elwood, some 7 kilometres away.

‘Cops are nowhere to be seen. Get to Elsternwick park for the biggest party Melbourne has seen for months!’, announced the Guardian Angel Telegram account that livestreams the protests. ‘Elsternwick is too far for people to walk if in the middle of the city!’, Michael replied. ‘They stuffed it. I’m out.’

Some protesters begin to gather at the southern end of the park, but it wasn’t long before buses of police descended upon the playground. Unsure who was leading, the protesters turned to their phones to see the instruction from Guardian Angel: ‘Everyone! Join the thousands of freedom living [sic] people hanging out at the beach!! It’s packed! Elwood beach is going offff”.

A group of twenty-five walked towards the beach but were tracked by police and a news helicopter as they attempted to blend in with the sunbathing locals. Those who had evaded the first interception were chased towards Ormond Village. One protester lay motionless on the ground after being apprehended, and some on the chat claimed that he had been killed.  

This kind of chaotic disorganisation has plagued the movement and could be symptomatic of its inability to find a clear and consistent message. The movement’s affinity with conspiracy theories means members are inundated with misinformation, making it difficult to know who or what to trust. Leaders of this specific demonstration were accused of operating as a ‘psy-op’ instigated by Victoria Police to embarrass the movement. Worryingly, nestled among conspiracy theories that paint Bill Gates as the orchestrator of the global pandemic are more sinister theories that blame Jews for the crisis, echoing smears seen in previous pandemics such as the Black Death.

One member, ‘Dave’, went largely unchallenged when he blamed Jews for the pandemic, while he and other members pushed the conspiracy theory that Jewish philanthropist George Soros was destabilising Western democracies by funding progressive institutions. Even Victoria’s governor general, Linda Dessau (who is Jewish), was accused of being party to the plot by refusing to remove Premier Daniel Andrews from office.

One Jewish member of the movement announced her departure from the group, declaring, ‘I refuse to hear the sh*t that is running on this channel about Jewish people’, but she was drowned out by an onslaught of posts citing anti-Semitic theories, including one accusing media personalities Rafael Epstein, Jon Faine and Neil Mitchell (all described as Jewish, although Mitchell is not) of conspiring to push a narrative of the crisis that painted Andrews as a hero.

As Facebook moves to ban pages promoting the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, some moderators on the Telegram groups have similarly vowed to exile members who promote hate speech. However, banned members have responded by creating rival groups where racism and anti-Semitism are tolerated.

Meanwhile, many in the movement exhibit paranoia and evidence of other mental-health issues. A study published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research suggests that those who believe COVID-19 was developed intentionally are more likely to report psychological distress and anxiety as well as reduced job and life satisfaction. The Addiction Centre considers adherence to conspiracy theories a behavioural addiction that perpetuates a cycle of distrust and disempowerment.

One member posted videos publicising his suicidal ideation, to which other users responded by encouraging him to meditate. Suicide rates are weaponised by the group as evidence of the lockdown’s inhumanity (though there has been no increase in suicide rates during the lockdown, according to statistics provided by the Coroner’s Court). Those discussing suicide are not counselled by members to seek mainstream medical help.

‘I watch people around me get on with the new norm’, Dee Dee wrote, ‘we are heading towards Genicide [sic] by the NWO and the vax. I was shaking for a few weeks. Knowing our helplessness. No where to run, no weapons to defend ourselves’.

The movement’s dramatic rise raises questions around funding for education and mental health, and while the Coalition government doubles fees for humanities degrees, thousands of vulnerable Australians are being mobilised under an agenda that seeks to re-write history.

With lockdown restrictions extended yet again, the anti-lockdown movement has entered the political mainstream, as thousands of Victorians from diverse backgrounds demand an end to one of the world’s longest lockdown periods. Though with much of the online discourse being driven by duplicitous members of the far Right hell-bent on exploiting the crisis for political gain, the movement risks fuelling further partisanship in the response to the pandemic.

Though the movement remains in its infancy, and is plagued by disorganisation, in-fighting and conflicting misinformation, Australia remains at risk of a resurgent far Right empowered by growing dissatisfaction about the government’s response to COVID-19.

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 10/10/2020 - 5:46am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

October 8, 2020 Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home, on the history of the white power movement • Billy Fleming and AL McCullough on The 2100 Project: An Atlas for the Green New Deal

Pix or It Didn’t Happen: Facebook vs. the Truth

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 23/09/2020 - 5:54am in

Anas’s story is a seminal one for our times: a David and Goliath tale of one brave individual — an immigrant and refugee no less—standing up to the toxic alliance of right wing hate groups and Big Tech. Continue reading

The post Pix or It Didn’t Happen: Facebook vs. the Truth appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

How to Plan a Coup

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/09/2020 - 12:53am in

Today’s big story is the growing threat of violence on the part of Trump loyalists in the administration, including the president himself. Continue reading

The post How to Plan a Coup appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

Where to Start?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 31/08/2020 - 12:50am in

The Trump administration's platform rests on his version of the pandemic, street protests, Russian meddling and election security. Continue reading

The post Where to Start? appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

On the Christchurch Massacre

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 27/08/2020 - 3:03am in

The decision by the convicted Christchurch mass murderer, Australian Brenton Tarrant, to make no statement during his sentencing is in keeping with his conduct throughout his crime and subsequent arrest and remand. It’s a manner we are unused to seeing in right-wing terrorists, and all the more disturbing for that. The moment when the accused speaks is always stomach-churning: we recognise it as everyone’s right, but it offers someone accused of a crime like this the chance to reprise their contempt for humanity—or the chance to spout mentally disorganised kitsch—reminding us that mass death has come from a mix of obsession, resentment and self-pity.

Yet, as disturbing as such statements are, they also reassure. Anders Breivik, who murdered seventy-seven77 teenagers and adults at a young social-democrats gathering in Norway, gave a cogent enough reason for targeting the ‘cultural Marxists’ who were destroying traditional Europe; and then beclowned himself with an elephantine, Wikipedia-referenceladen manifesto and petulant courtroom antics. Whether he was insane, legally speaking, or not, Breivik’s actions did not break clear of their backstory: he was fucked-up European flotsam, who turned his rage at being personally deracinated—coming from a broken family in a dead Europe—into an attack on those who consented to it, a last fragment flying off the end of the twentieth century.

From the start, Tarrant conducted himself in a different and more ominous fashion. Everything he did was focused on the propaganda of the deed. His ‘manifesto’ was short and pointed (and in it he claimed to have deleted a much longer one), done in a Q-and-A format, and lightly mocking of the pretensions of such documents. His ‘tribute’ to Breivik as a Christian warrior appears to be a joke of sorts, claiming a continuity while taking the mickey. His remark that, like Nelson Mandela, he would be freed after twenty-seven years was equally ‘playful’. His assessment of his own historical import—that, disappearing into the prison system, he would soon be forgotten, even after a deed such as this—suggests a chillingly rational assessment of deathlebrity. More convincingly than many, Tarrant has presented himself as a soldier, conducting one mission in a war—against the alleged annihilation of white European culture by the 6-per-cent Muslim population of Western Europe, and the global politics of multiculturalism more generally—that is to be regarded as lost for the moment, and that calls out stalwart acts of striking atrocity as a form of remnant resistance until a greater rebellion begins: a terroristic Thermopylae, buying time.

Unlike the sprawling violence of Breivik’s acts, the killing of white ‘traitors’, the cultural and emotional incontinence of it all, and the ancien regime politics with which few can identify, Tarrant’’s atrocity called on different cultural identifications. Neatly packaged and assembled, prepared using drones and filmed on a helmet-mounted go-pro camera, it was DIY-store terror, put together from commonly available parts. It was also product. His Q-and-A document was no ‘manifesto’, and it certainly wasn’t ‘rambling’, that lazy journalist’s cliché; it was the event’s manual, a how-to guide for what he had produced, the signifying terrorist atrocity as kit, a horror franchise. A mapping by The New York Times of subsequent white-supremacist attacks, and their stated influences,  showed how quickly the Christchurch event influenced half a dozen other attacks, most of which, a year or so later, are themselves forgotten. Breivik believed that his act would spark a white uprising in Europe, and is reportedly bewildered and disappointed that this has not occurred; Tarrant appears to have accurately predicted the limited impact of his atrocity, keeping a flame alive.

In that respect, the dark minimalism of his act turns much of the attempt to socially re-assimilate it—as individual hate, as insanity—back on itself. The threat of a whole-life-without-parole term and a permanent disappearance into the grey half-world of prison seems to add a cosmic lustre. The acceptance of a guilty plea, the absence of court theatrics, dispels any suggestion of adolescent rebelliousness turned lethal. The statements of victims and their relatives are passionate, moving, noble and, as a standing refutation of murderer’s beliefs, a reminder of the profound unity of Christianity and Islam in notions of an obligation to infinite mercy and forgiveness under God. But his refusal to speak, to diminish the self-contained nature of the act with spluttering justification, leaves them with nothing to be more noble or loving than;by detailing their unassuaged and unassuageable pain, they emphasise the singularity of the act, as terror, its distinct status a political omega point. Terror is something not even its own supporters can approve of. Everything about this massacre appears to have been dedicated to one end: to create an act that was irreducibly political, one in which the ends were not consumed by the ghastly, nihilistic means. By Tarrant’’s account, his act was an equal and opposite measure against a new order—global multiculturalism—that he saw as nihilistic in its global, autonomous power, and its self-depoliticising capacity. Multiculturalism, global borderlessness, as a specific politics, simply disappears from view, into the status of unquestionable good. The collective refusal by powers of left and right to present it as such makes a recognition of Tarrant’s act as political equally difficult. That is above all in the mischaracterisation of his ideology as white supremacist; his document makes clear that it is ‘survivalist’, seeing white Europeans as threatened with dissolution (something he compared to Indigenous dispossession, an argument absolutely no one wanted to handle); this so-called ‘great replacement’ theory is spurious and self-pitying, and it would appear to have a class–race conjunction, a right-wing anti-intersectionality. It functions, for a violent global right subculture and its larger hinterland of self-selecting disaffected Anglo-Celtic and European working- and middle-class people, as a claim that it can only gain recognition from a totalising system by atrocity. Breivik’s hit was a distant echo of a Nazi street attack, if not the battle at the gates of Vienna. Tarrant’’s act of terror pointed towards the future. Quite possibly, this series of acts of which it is a part will cease, marooned in time, as empty and vicious defiance of a new world. And quite possibly it is a harbinger of a changing one. It only takes one side to make a war, especially if that side believes one has already been started.

Book Review: Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream by Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/07/2020 - 9:04pm in

In Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter challenge the assumption that democracy is necessarily progressive through introducing the notion of ‘reactionary democracy’, showing how narratives that claim that the resurgence of racism, populism and the far right are the result of popular demands obscure the manipulation of the idea of ‘the people’ for reactionary ends by those in power. This is an indispensable book, writes Rahel Süß, and is a must-read for those seeking to contest prevailing ideas about the relationship between racism and liberal democracy.

Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream. Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter. Verso. 2020.

Reactionary Democracy is destined to be one of the indispensable books of our time, a work drawing upon the enduring debate about the causes of systemic racism. Introducing readers to the entanglement of racism and liberal democracy, this co-authored book seeks to shed new light on how these forms of power interact and the possibilities emerging in the wake of this.

In western societies, authors Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter observe, the liberal narrative celebrates the abolishment of slavery and the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US as a defeat of racism. The problem with such a framework is that it constructs racism as something of the past, and therefore fails to account for systemic racism today.

Starting from the assumption that democracy is not necessarily progressive, the book introduces the idea of ‘reactionary democracy’. The central claim holds that the resurgence of racism, populism and the far right is not the result of popular demands but instead the consequence of ‘a more or less conscious manipulation of the concept of ‘‘the people’’ to push reactionary ideas in the service of power’ (17). Such an argument emerges out of the authors’ critique, which shows that the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and the far right is not only a reaction to the limitations of liberal democracy and its failure to address them, but also is the product of liberal institutions.

There are several instructive arguments animating the book. In Chapters One and Two, the authors introduce what they call ‘illiberal’ and ‘liberal racism’. The former describes articulations of racism associated with biological racism, genocide, racist violence and segregation, which are claimed to have been defeated by the forces of egalitarian liberal societies (79). Liberal racism instead refers to the ‘denial of the forms of racism which persist and have deep roots in liberalism’ (94). While they admit that the borders between the two are ‘fuzzy’, they insist on the importance of this conceptual distinction to allow for nuanced analyses of how ‘the existence of illiberal racism in opposition to liberal racism is essential to the perpetuation of a system built on discrimination and privilege, ensuring its mainstream acceptability’ (19).

Drawing on case studies from the UK, the US and France, Chapter Three subsequently discloses how the mainstreaming of the far right and the radicalising of the mainstream function as intertwined processes. Holding the view that the mainstreaming process originates not only from popular politics of far-right parties and movements but also from discursive elites (such as the media, politicians and academics), the authors explore this dual dynamic. Finally, the task of Chapter Four is to outline in detail how the processes of legitimising and mainstreaming reactionary understandings of equal rights and liberty operate.

Populism serves as an explanatory example for Mondon and Winter’s argument. By drawing on the common usage of the term, they disclose how the discursive link between ‘the people’ and the far right has been created through the term ‘populist’. For them, it is vital to understand how the term ‘populism’ euphemises ideas around racism by falsely assuming an ‘ideological evolution away from racism’ towards more ‘blurry forms of politics’ (162-63).

For Mondon and Winter, there are at least two problems with this discursive link between ‘the people’ and the far right: firstly, ‘it legitimises the far right and its ideas’; and secondly, ‘it delegitimises the people as central to the democratic process’ (279) because of ‘the almost exclusive association of the term ‘‘populism’’ with the far right’ (280). In their view, the far right has largely benefitted from the skewed interpretation of the rise of the populist right, in particular by a) constructing racist and exclusionary ideas as representing the will of ‘the people’; b) positioning them as an example of popular revolt; and c) discussing its potential as an alternative to the current system (211).

Drawing on the current political discourse about the working class, Mondon and Winter show how the link between the working class and racism was constructed especially in the context of both the UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election campaign (325). In disclosing how most of the political commentary assumed that the working class was white, they also highlight how the ‘enemy’ of working-class struggles became ‘defined only by race, ethnicity or foreign nationality, rather than by class’ (332). Their argument, however, is not that the working class should be seen uncritically as a vessel for emancipatory politics. More interested in tracing back the particular narrative which equates the working class with the rise of the far right, Mondon and Winter seek to develop an understanding of the ‘ideological underpinnings of this manoeuvre, which places the blame squarely on the voiceless, […] deflecting attention from those responsible for the current sociopolitical situation’ (333).

Yet there is another important aspect of the relationship between populism and the mainstreaming of the far right. As liberalism has created a new political dichotomy between populists on one side, whether of the left or the right, and anti-populists on the other, Mondon and Winter show that liberalism positions itself as the defender against ‘all forms of authoritarianism and irrational politics’ (283). In doing so, however, liberal institutions not only ignore their ‘share of responsibility for the rise of authoritarian politics’, but also ‘create a diversion away from their own failures’ (283).

Conclusively, the misuse of the category of populism as the only alternative to the establishment has allowed the systemic failures of liberalism to go unremarked within public discourse. It is this absence of antagonism in contemporary politics that marks, according to the authors, a central source for the mainstreaming of the far right. But how does this mainstreaming operate? With the help of powerful actors, Mondon and Winter argue, that legitimise the far right’s ideas as a credible alternative. As carefully described by them, ‘the mainstreaming of the far right is not simply or even predominantly the result of popular demand or the savviness of the far right itself’ (290). It is also the result of sensationalist media coverage as well as the short-term and opportunistic strategies of politicians and academics.

Turning to the question of a more radical democratic imagination at the end of their book, Mondon and Winter convincingly emphasise the importance of understanding racism as power relations that evolve and adapt. Consequently, racism is not exhausted by its illiberal articulations. Liberalism itself has ‘failed to live up to its own supposed ideals’ (392). Ultimately, it is essential to recognise that ‘the far right is not the (only or inevitable) alternative’ (296).

While the overall argument of Reactionary Democracy convincingly illuminates current debates about systemic racism, it fails to fully account for the role white privilege plays. Part of the problem is the absence of a conceptual discussion of the term ‘democracy’. Although Mondon and Winter shift attention from democracy as an institutional process or electoral politics to more ‘discursive forms’ (210), they say little about the underlying assumption. In the absence of such systematisation, the book is unable to fully grasp how contemporary inclusive and participatory politics stabilise what the political theorist Joel Olson refers to as ‘white democracy’. This term is used to describe how attempts of democratic repair fail because they misconstrue racial oppression as a problem of exclusion (for which the solution is inclusion), rather than a problem of white privilege.

Finally, the book offers little guidance on the question of strategy and increasing democracy. Besides a few references to grassroots and social movements, it does not discuss the potential – or danger – of current experiments with new democratic institutions and practices, such as the inclusive politics of civic lotteries or participatory citizens’ assemblies. Because of the absence of such a discussion, Mondon and Winter do not address whether emancipatory or participatory politics can play a role in mainstreaming the far right. More inclined to develop a framework for understanding liberal and illiberal racism, the book focuses instead on how the idea of progress has falsely left a lasting mark on the liberal democratic imagination.

Overall, however, it can be said that Reactionary Democracy is an important contribution to the continuing debate on the causes of systemic racism. With its call for a thorough analysis of the relation between the far right and liberal democracy, the book provokes the right question at the right time. For scholars and students of politics, philosophy and history seeking to challenge prevailing ideas about racism and liberal democracy, this is a must-read.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Triptych image created using photo by James Eades on Unsplash, taken at Black Lives Matter London Protest, 6 June 2020.

 


In Other News: Historic Coalition Unites to Challenge Poverty & Revive Democracy Amidst Recession, Pandemic & Protests

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/06/2020 - 2:47am in

“Poor and low-income people from more than 40 states will demand change as they share stories of struggling through poverty and protests for racial justice at a historic digital assembly and march sponsored by The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.” The assembly and march will be aired at 10 AM and 6 PM ET on Saturday, June 20, and at 6 PM ET on Sunday, June 21.  Continue reading

The post In Other News: Historic Coalition Unites to Challenge Poverty & Revive Democracy Amidst Recession, Pandemic & Protests appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

Book Review: ‘We are the People’: The Rise of the AfD in Germany by Penny Bochum

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/05/2020 - 11:53pm in

In ‘We are the People’: The Rise of the AfD in Germany, Penny Bochum examines the origins and radicalisation of the German political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). With populist parties across Europe experiencing a surge in popularity, the AfD was established in 2013, but came to dominate German politics in 2017 when it won over 90 seats in the Bundestag. The AfD is the third largest party in the German parliament and positions itself as the voice of ‘the people’ against a ‘corrupt elite’. Given its various successes, Bochum argues, it has now become impossible to write the AfD off as merely a blip on the political landscape. This short but accessible volume will prove useful to readers unfamiliar with the party and its core issues, writes Katherine Williams.

‘We are the People’: The Rise of the AfD in Germany. Penny Bochum. Haus Publishing. 2020.

Despite comprising less than 100 pages, ‘We are the People’ by Penny Bochum, a political researcher and writer based in Berlin and London, offers readers an insightful and timely English-language analysis of the rise and radicalisation of the German political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). Published as part of the Haus Curiosities series, this short volume has nine principal chapters that chart the AfD’s eurosceptic beginnings, its populist evolution and its increasing association with right-wing extremism. The author does an effective job of teasing out the most pressing debates, and critically interrogates the AfD’s ‘cumulative radicalisation’ and the alleged influence of the party’s anti-Islam and anti-immigration rhetoric on right-wing extremists.

In the introduction, Bochum details the murder of Walter Lübcke, a pro-refugee Christian Democrat (CDU) and President of the CDU in Kessel, at the hands of a right-wing extremist in June 2019. The author details the case of another right-wing extremist who livestreamed his attack on congregants observing Yom Kippur in Halle in October 2019. When the perpetrator could not blast through the door of the synagogue, he murdered two passers-by. In February 2020, after the publication of ‘We are the People’, a gunman killed nine people at two shisha bars in Hanau, and went on to kill his mother and then himself. In the aftermath of these attacks, debates have raged over the culpability of the AfD and the influence that their incendiary rhetoric may have had on the perpetrators. Following the Hanau attack, Social Democrat (SPD) Boris Pistorius claimed that ‘a fatal disinhibition has been set in motion, and the AfD is complicit in this’, and the AfD’s opponents have blasted its practice of an ‘exclusionary form of politics’ and subsequent positioning of Muslims and immigrants as an existential ‘threat’ to the German state and its citizens.

The discussion in this slim volume becomes even more pertinent given the recent announcement that Der Flügel (The Wing), a nationalistic faction within the AfD, will be placed under formal surveillance by German security services (the book dedicates a chapter to the rise of Der Flügel prior to these developments). Bochem maintains that in order to counter the threat posed by the AfD and Der Flügel to liberal democracy, the centre parties must remain steadfast in their opposition to the AfD and its divisive agenda. However, despite a seemingly unequivocal agreement between parties that it would be unacceptable to cooperate with the AfD, centre-right politicians from the CDU and Free Democrats (FDP) used AfD votes to oust the left-wing premier of the eastern German state of Thuringia in February 2020. Withdrawing their own candidate, the AfD threw their support behind FDP candidate Thomas Kemmerich, securing his victory by one vote. Kemmerich resigned the next day following a national backlash.

The Thuringia branch of the AfD is considered particularly problematic given both its extremist associations and its divisive leader Björn Höcke, who also serves as spokesperson for Der Flügel. In 2017, Höcke provoked outrage when he referred to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin as ‘a memorial of shame’, posing provocative and uncomfortable questions about Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) and the extent of its post-war responsibilities. The idea that the centre-right parties in Thuringia were willing to cooperate with the AfD, and Höcke in particular, disrupts accepted political norms, and reinforces the AfD’s core narrative that it holds a legitimate stake in the German political landscape despite its extremist associations and its alleged culpability in relation to recent attacks on minority groups by right-wing extremists. Following news that it would be monitored by German security services, Der Flügel pledged to dissolve itself, but commentators have speculated that this may merely be a tactical move amid internal party power struggles.

The Thuringia debacle notwithstanding, the mainstream parties in Germany have generally been united in their opposition to the AfD and its desire to further consolidate its political legitimacy in order to effectively counter the rising tide of populism. The author describes how parties in the UK, conversely, have come to adopt tenets of populist rhetoric in their attempts to fend off the likes of UKIP and the Brexit Party, noting in particular, the case of the Conservative Party under the leadership of Boris Johnson. The subsequent adoption of a Brexit agenda determined to secure the UK’s exit from the EU—seemingly at any cost—has sold voters the fantasy of ‘taking back control’ without adequately defining what that means in practice, or indeed, what ‘the will of the people’ actually represents, as Bochem wryly notes.

Additionally, the incendiary rhetoric deployed by UKIP and others prior to the 2016 EU referendum did little to assuage public misconceptions surrounding immigration or the UK’s relationship to the EU. The same day that UKIP unveiled their now infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered outside of her constituency office by a far-right extremist heard to shout ‘Britain first’ and ‘keep Britain independent’ as he repeatedly attacked the MP. Consequently, the real-world implications of this divisive rhetoric are hard to dismiss as coincidental, particularly following the deaths of Jo Cox and Walter Lübcke, despite the protests of those prominent figures who have benefitted the most from this enduring political unrest.

Populist rhetoric, then, succeeds when the mainstream parties are fractured, as the cases of the UK and Germany both aptly demonstrate. As the author points out, simplistic solutions to complex problems only serve to exacerbate and reinforce existing divisions. Invariably, solving the populist ‘problem’ requires a committed effort on the part of mainstream parties to counter the rhetoric of parties like the AfD. This effort goes beyond national borders, and in the face of the global public health crisis we are all currently experiencing, the future remains somewhat unclear. However, in the German context, despite the AfD’s constant media agitation and continued criticism of Angela Merkel’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears that what people really want is a steady hand to guide them through the crisis. A recent survey from broadcaster ZDF reports that 80 per cent of respondents approve of the Merkel government’s handling of the crisis. Additionally, the German government has called upon medically qualified migrants to help them tackle the pandemic; Germany has over 14,000 Syrian refugee doctors waiting to qualify and their expertise will certainly prove invaluable to national efforts in the coming months.

Given the many political crises that have taken place following the publication of ‘We are the People’, it would certainly be interesting to see a second edition that reflected these significant events, as well as an analysis of AfD responses to the pandemic. Nonetheless, the book offers readers a valuable insight into the development of the AfD and its various factions, providing a useful springboard from which readers can broaden their understandings of the contemporary German political landscape and its recent controversies.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Protest against the AfD and nationalism, Berlin, 2018 (Vollformat Berlin CC BY SA 2.0).