During the Scottish referendum, and during recent visits to Germany and Sweden, I’ve been pondering the rise of radical populist movements. I know much less about the Front National in France or Syriza in Greece than I do about Pegida, UKIP and the SNP, of course. Still, I am impressed by the levels of support that these diverse movements are attracting. And in different ways, they both present and express a significant challenge to the established political order. What does this all mean for active citizenship in modern European countries like our own?
Armin Nassehi is a German sociologist whose work deals with what ‘society’ might mean in contemporary conditions. He has published fifteen books and who knows how many articles, and he was co-editor (with Ulrich Beck) of the leading journal Soziale Welt. He is particularly interested in the relationship between social science and political activity, and has been recognised for his contribution to intercultural dialogue.
Nassehi’s work, unlike Beck’s, is not yet available in English, but his concerns are hardly limited to the borders of Germany. This week he gave an interview to a German newspaper on the electoral success of populist parties, Left and Right, in a number of European countries (oddly, Germany was been the main exception to this trend – until the recent rise of the largely non-electoral Pegida movement).
Given the wider relevance of the topic, I thought I’d share at least a few extracts. After all, the number of people who do not feel themselves represented by the established political parties seems to be large, and growing in many countries. Is Nasshi right that populism appeals to those who feel baffled and powerless in the face of modern social complexity?
Asked why voters appear so fascinated with parties who reject established political structures, Nassehi agreed that these parties claim that:
everything in society is going wrong. But there is also a constructive element: it is suggested that there are simple ways of changing the world. On the Right there is the idea that a more ethnically homogeneous society will create more solidarity and more cohesive governance. On the Left there is the idea that societies can be governed and rebuilt centrally.
For Nassehi, this implies that while there are differences between Left and Right populisms, there are also similarities:
Modern societies are complex. Many citizens don’t want to deal with that. That’s why parties promise simple solutions – from Left and Right. The Left is generally more attractive because it works with universalistic arguments and demands for justice. But the new Left parties deny the complexity of society as much as the Right. They persuade us that there are simple levers with which one can change things. But modern societies are not made in such a one-dimensional way.
Nassehi’s proposal is that the traditional concerns of the political parties must be transformed into what he calls ‘new complexity challenges’. Precisely what that means in practice is not clear – but perhaps that is his point.
And while the established media seem incapable of investigating and debating ‘complexity challenges’, more and more people are drawn towards digital communications to express their views and exchange information and ideas. Spaces for active digital citizenship really start to matter.