ifa: How do you assess the current polarization of society and the rise of right-wing extremist discourses in Germany and elsewhere?
Nitzan Shoshan: Social polarization or socioeconomic inequality has been growing steadily but unevenly across countries and regions and its relationship with nationalist and anti-democratic currents (or political polarization) has been complex. In some cases, far-right supporters come primarily from disadvantaged sectors (e.g., the AfD), yet in others they come from privileged groups (e.g., Trump in the USA or Bolsonaro in Brazil). Relative inequality levels do not always correlate with right-wing extremist success. More important than objective measures of deprivation are subjective experiences and perceptions, which emerge from frustrated expectations and assumptions about personal and collective futures.
Hopes and fears about the future grow out of sensibilities that had been shaped under historical conditions and social contexts very different from the present. The relatively short history of democracy in much of Europe – including Germany, of course – has been deeply intertwined with the promise of universal prosperity as its mode of self-legitimation, especially throughout the middle of the 20th century. Today, we witness increasing tensions between the lingering attachments to this promise and its gradual collapse, not only as an objectively measurable reality but also, and more importantly, as an imagined futurity. I think we should be looking at such tensions if we wish to understand the links between social polarization and the surge of right-wing populism.
ifa: What makes populism or authoritarianism so successful in the political landscape today?
Shoshan: Populism can mean many things, from resentment against elites or claims about the true and unique essence of the people to hostility and scapegoating of cultural, religious, ethnic or sexual difference. Populism also can be used as a strategically deployed label to delegitimize movements and actors that question the status quo. The rise of authoritarian populist discourses owes to multiple factors, of which I will mention three here.
First, together with the ostensibly unprecedented democratization after the fall of the Soviet bloc we have witnessed a crisis in the capacity of democratic regimes to sustain previous modes of self-legitimation. Established ways of justifying ideologically the domination of political elites over populations in democratic states had become increasingly obsolete, much for the same reasons already mentioned above. The nostalgia we see today for those lost futures of collective wellbeing offers fertile ground for certain types of authoritarian politics.
Second, the recent revival of race and the renewed legitimacy of its usage as a pseudoscientific biological – rather than social – category inspires majoritarian political ideologies today. Tabooed and repressed yet always latent, biological concepts of race have returned forcefully in popular renderings of advances in genomic science and are employed for multiple political ends today, for example to argue for the putatively different intelligence levels of racial groups.
Finally, technological developments, like digitalisation, have generated powerful challenges to previously consolidated modes of authorizing public discourses (such as officially validated expertise), which no longer command the same capacity to shape political debates. This process has enabled heretofore silenced voices to be heard, and has therefore yielded profoundly decentralizing, democratizing, and emancipatory effects, yet it has simultaneously contributed to legitimizing right-wing populist discourses.
ifa: You have conducted research in the field of what you call 'The Management of Hate'. What can political ethnography contribute to understanding right-wing extremism?
Shoshan: Ethnography entails the development of intimacy with those whom we study. Looking up close, what we see is very different from distanced impressions, and we can observe with greater detail the unfolding of complex processes. Instead of defining categories in advance, ethnography allows – indeed, demands – an approach that is more open-ended and receptive to the heterogeneity of the social world. Moreover, especially with illicit or strongly tabooed topics, the proximity and confidence we establish with our interlocutors may grant us access to data they would otherwise be unlikely to share.
When I began my study, I could find virtually no ethnographic research on right-wing extremism, a field studied largely from a safe distance, for example using statistical surveys, structured interviews in staged settings, or analyses of political rhetoric, propaganda, and literature. My observations and conversations with my young interlocutors led me to question, for example, the very category of extremism, which hardly corresponded with the diversity of ambivalent and shifting positions that I found. They similarly confronted me with the dynamic nature of political identification that academic research often understands as immutable.
ifa: Why do state preventive measures, such as anti-racism messages and heavy-hand measures against neo-Nazis, often fall to stony ground or cause the opposite?
Shoshan: Many government programs have shown significant positive impact and policies against neo-Nazis have frequently incorporated lessons from past experiences, improving upon or abandoning failed strategies. Additionally, the fight against right-wing extremism takes place on the streets, not in a controlled lab. And therefore evaluating the success of specific policies, whose results depend on multiple factors, is difficult. Often such programs can only offset so much the local effects of more powerful forces.
Yet government efforts indeed often fail to meet their desirable goals. In the book I published based on my ethnography with young neo-Nazis, I describe several interventions and explain why they prove counter-productive. In part, the deep anxieties and prejudices that for historical reasons burden what I call the management of hate in Germany sustain potent cultural taboos. Moral panics in the public sphere and normative judgments in scholarly debates hinder the confrontation with unpleasing realities, resulting in simplistic explanations that fail to grasp complex problems and design adequate responses. Perspectives that remain distant from the target of such interventions, with little first-hand experience or solid grasp of the problems that young neo-Nazis embody and confront, usually gain priority over those who, either through praxis or ethnographic research, are intimately familiar with such persons.
ifa: How, in your opinion, can Germany combat the growing nationalism and racism more effectively?
Shoshan: Beyond specific strategies that have shown positive effects, Germany must acknowledge racism and nationalism as mainstream problems, rather than project the fight against them onto putative deviant extremes and thereby providing itself with an alibi. Racism and nationalism constitute normalized dimensions of social life in Germany. They happen casually, in everyday situations and among people who consider themselves neither racist nor nationalist. Externalizing them onto some presumed extreme disavows their prevalence and hinders the fight against them.
For example, many in Germany continue to hold to a notion of national belonging based on blood kinship or shared genealogy. German migration and naturalization laws largely continue to reflect this notion, even after their (very limited) liberalization. They enshrine ideas of racial nationalism institutionally in how the German state recognizes membership and belonging. Moreover, German media, news outlets, and entertainment tirelessly reproduce racial stereotypes, reinforcing racist worldviews among broad publics (consider, for example, the Netflix series Dogs of Berlin). I oppose censorship and prohibitions, which I find counter-productive. Rather, Germans must reflect critically on such representations and expose them for what they are.
Interview by Ulrike Prinz
About the author
Nitzan Shoshan is an anthropologist specializing in German and European nationalism and right-wing extremism. He is a professor at the Center for Sociological Studies at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City and received his Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2008.
His ethnographic research with young neo-Nazis in East Berlin serves as the basis for his prize-winning monograph The Management of Hate. Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-Wing Extremism in Germany.