For an Austria in the avant-garde of a social Europe
What can I say to progressive Austrians in view of what has befallen their country? I risk appearing naïve – I do not live in Austria and I am not Austrian. However, I would like at least to support those Austrians who are defending themselves against some very specific explanations of their current situation, against all the self-righteous teachers who are closing their eyes to the reality of the present with thoughtless references to a terrible past. I think that the connections to Hitler and Nazism which have been set up in many western countries and which have been used to justify a hysterical boycott are based on prejudices and a thoughtless drawing of parallels, that they are superficial and that they prevent understanding of the particular nature of what has happened here. Instead one should seriously investigate the causes which have made possible the rise of this insignificant and repulsive figure whose name I do not want to mention here (and if I can give one piece of advice, especially to journalists and intellectuals, it is not to mention this name). Now is the time to question courageously and openly what was done or not done which made possible this rise, not in order to condemn or expose those responsible and not to preach but far more in order to learn from what has happened.
If we must draw parallels to this case, then we should not be looking back to the nineteen-thirties but rather to the more recent past, for example to the figure of Ronald Reagan, in the USA. A silver screen pretty boy and second class actor, always beautifully tanned and with his hair carefully combed, just like the other one today who I do not want to mention, and like him a proponent of ultra-nationalist and ultra-reactionary ideologies and a compliant marionette in the service of conservative economic interests. It is these which send out these kitsch embodiments of radical lasser-faire who unhesitatingly allow free rein to economic forces. One could continue with Margaret Thatcher but also go straight to Tony Blair who is now, as in Lisbon, even more reactionary in European questions than a right-wing French president.
But if we are not merely to look for connections or examples which do not explain very much but to begin questioning what has caused and is responsible for the present situation then we must begin with large-scale international politics, the total victory of unrestrained neo-liberalism which was further accelerated by the breakdown of Soviet power. For this neo-liberalism is simply the freshly painted mask of an old conservative ideology and signifies a "conservative revolution" which, especially in the media, presents itself as the height of contemporary taste. The undivided dominance of neo-liberalism in Europe and throughout the world has created a whole troop of helpless, disheartened people who, because of their disappointed hopes, are prepared to deliver themselves up to any demagogue. If this is possible it is because in societies such as the USA it has come to the point where more than 50% of the electorate make no use of their vote due to the general de-politicisation. Unrestrained economic forces are left to their own devices and the media put themselves at the service of those kitsch figures who are thereby able to give themselves the appearance of political power but who at the same time embody the general de-politicisation to which they also contribute.
The media obviously take on enormous significance here, and I think that a media boycott of the extreme right would be extremely effective. This was seen in France with Le Pen, who from the day that the media grew weary of him almost completely disappeared from the scene. It is no coincidence that there is a close connection between media presence and the results of opinion polls.
Without all joining in a collective mea culpa – that would be ridiculous and lead nowhere, it is necessary to analyse the causes in order to draw lessons for action from them. Apart from the journalists, there are also the intellectuals. Today they are waking up and they should ask themselves in what they have collaborated and in what they have been accomplices – if only by their silence and their apathy. Then there are the social democratic parties who have copied even the physical appearance of the person I do not want to mention, who have taken over the language of the extreme right, have taken up their themes, have spoken of "zero tolerance". In France we have a socialist President of the Republic who has spoken of a "tolerance threshold", we have a socialist Prime Minister who has said one need not concern oneself with "all the suffering in the world". Apart from taking over the vocabulary of neo-liberalism, they have adopted, out of pure demagogy and with their eyes on the opinion polls, the most disgusting language of fascist extremism. It is the fact that all collective critical thought has become very difficult. However, we must continue with it. I am a little ashamed to speak about such important matters but it is not easy to make an off the cuff analysis at a distance.
What can we do about this conservative revolution? Obviously, we can take up a symbolic struggle and push forward collective work which deals with the causes and consequences of this conservative hegemony – and then, with the help of artists such as Hans Haacke, we can develop new forms of effective symbolic action. However, one can also develop new structures of resistance and in particular oppose this stupid nationalism which would be ridiculous if it was not so tragic, with a new internationalism. Of course, internationalism has been discredited by the use to which it was put by the Soviet regime, but I think that today in all countries the many victims of neo-liberalism have recognised the need to unite across borders. If there is one thing that is "globalised", to use the fashionable word, then it is neo-conservative ideology and international economic powers which are expressed in the word. These forces must be opposed by international political resistance. Two months ago we launched the idea with a number of trade unions and social movements in Germany, France, Greece, Italy and possibly even England, to introduce a charter for a European social movement or more precisely, to begin with a large meeting of movements, including trade unions of course, but also other groups (organisations of the unemployed, people without official papers and the homeless) to draw up this charter for a European social state. At the same time – although even that is already a Utopia – to create the basis for a European social movement based to the left of all these social democratic parties which are in effect worse than the conservatives because they propagate the same policies in a different guise and contribute to the demoralisation and deception of critical forces.
What can Austria do in all this? Perhaps the misfortune of Austria could at the same time be a chance for Austria and the whole of Europe. I seem to be setting up a kind of reverse paradox of for and against, but I really do believe that this Austria, directly exposed to the experience of how a joke can turn into something deadly serious, in view of the possibility that this marionette, who nobody should really take seriously, could one day take over power, that this Austria, which itself has woken up with a shock, could shake the whole of Europe out of its sleep. It is precisely here where Europeans should work together. All the intellectuals, trade unions, critical movements and groups in Europe should leave aside the stupid boycott orders but should support progressive forces which are now going onto the street in Austria. I am particularly thinking of the young people. I was amazed to see in all film reports the overwhelming participation of young people who are said to be "depoliticised" but who are actually only disappointed at the cynicism of politics and the opportunism of politicians. Because if the fascist, whose name is continually mentioned, is the opportunist par excellence, the chameleon, he is only a borderline case of politicians who in the course of their career change from the extreme left to the centre right and have gone even further and who disguise their about-turns with socialist rhetoric. These young people who have been described as disappointed and depoliticised are waiting for a political message which will not, such as on the extreme right, be of the kind "That must be done" or "This is how is must be done", associated with the exaltation of neo-liberal laisser-faire, but without also preaching the other side of false realism as done by the social democrats of economic neo-liberalism.
So what message? I do not want to improvise a programme here, but we will soon present to the public on 1 May 2000, a symbolic date, in a number of European newspapers – that we will have their support cannot be taken for granted – this proposal for a European charter which I hope that many Austrians will sign. We are organising a meeting for September or October to discuss the draft charter and ratify it. We then hope to be able to call a large meeting in Athens in March of the following year which then – and these are big words – could be something like the General Assembly of the European Social Movement, that is an international political force which would be a real counter-pole to the real political power, against the naked power of the economy in neo-liberal clothes, or worse still, social democratic rhetoric.
That was what I wanted to say. I ask forgiveness of those who I have surprised or shocked. In any case, it is my conviction that even if it sounds strange, Austria and progressive Austrians could be in the avant-garde of the European social movement which we so urgently need to fight the real powers which threaten our democracy, our culture, our free cinema and free literature. These are powers to which the one I do not want to mention belongs, only as one of their insignificant and detestable side effects.
Collège de France, Chair of Sociology
Paris, March 2K
This text was delivered as part of the conference sektor3/kultur, organised by IG Kultur Österreich, on 31 March in the WUK/Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna.
TransAct Statement I
For an Austria in the avant-garde of a social Europe