Austrians behaving badly
In this respect the Mainscream Media got it right: last month’s presidential elections in Austria sent a clear message on European attitudes toward refugees and migrants.
It’s uncanny. In almost every district in Austria where migrants are a visible presence, voters rejected the far-right anti-migrant candidate, often by overwhelming margins: in areas immediately bordering the Schengen Zone; in every city of any size, including a town whose mayor is of the far-right party. In Vienna the working-class district of Liesing, known for widely circulated pictures of demonstrations against a refugee center, went for the Green candidate by a ten-point margin; the area south of the Westbahnhof train station, a major reception area for refugees where massive demonstrations in support of migrants and refugees have been studiously ignored by the Mainscream, went Green by about 80%.
“Is This the West’s Weimar Moment?” asks the New York Times with its usual bear-in-the-woods rhetoric. And of course it is. That Weimar Moment’s been going on since the Cold War began among those politicians and media in America, in Europe and elsewhere who would rather empower a once-or-future Nazi than grant any kind of legitimacy to the mildest of leftists. The ultra-right-winger’s success in the first round of the Austrian Presidential elections was not surprising considering the legitimation of fascist rhetoric and behavior carried out all over Europe in the past twenty years by the American and European press and by a political and administrative establishment eager to push the narrative of a rise of anti-migrant sentiment, a rise which the global capitalists have used and promise to use some more as an excuse to push further restrictions on the mobility of labor, as in happening right now in England for instance. As the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde has suggested, the rise of the extreme right in Europe is in great part a self-fulfilling prophecy of the media and the extreme right itself. As Karl Polanyi put it, among “Liberals of the Mises school [...] Fascism is condoned as the safeguard of Liberal economics.”)
The difference with Weimar this time, is that the Austrian voters repudiated two not-so-distinct groups instead of one: not only did they reject the far-right, albeit by a small margin; they also rejected those centrist politicians who have been unwilling or unable to stand up to Fascism. It wasn’t so long ago that the Austrian Socialist Party broke its longstanding pledge to never share power with the extreme right; and that the Austrian Chancellor, Werner Faymann, a Socialist, caved in to media-sponsored demands of the right and closed the borders to migrants in a brutal about-face from the previous policy. Faymann himself resigned following the first round of elections, after being booed by his own party at the Mayday ceremonies in Vienna: it was, to say the least, unusual to see burly Viennese workers calling their Chancellor “Oaschloch,” Viennese dialect for, well, you know. After which the right wing of the Socialist Party hastened their own demise in the second round by refusing to endorse a respected economist over a Greater Deutschland nutter. Michael Haüple, the cunning Mayor of Vienna surmised that the elections marked the death-knell for any further thought of an alliance between the Reds and the Blue Meanies. The Austrian presidential elections, like the Democratic primaries in America, may be harbingers of a wider global trend the Spanish comrades call Sorpasso: that moment when a genuinely progressive Left overtakes the slightly-left parties that have been stealing its rhetoric. Up until now in France, in England, in the United States, the Liberal Center has been able to present itself as the only viable alternative to a Trump, a le Pen, a Farage; that won’t wash anymore, and certainly not in Austria, where the center-right and center-left barely garnered 20% between them in the first round of elections while the Green vote in Vienna rose from 20% in the previous municipal elections, to 32%. In the second round the Green candidate got two-thirds of the vote in Vienna, while as usual the media and the Meanies trumpeted their loss as a harbinger of major gains in the future; then again, the neo-liberal media and the right have been trumpeting the same thing in France, in Austria and elsewhere for the past fifteen years or more: a shark has to keep moving or it dies, and that’s as true of Fascism as of the Mass Media; true, also, that Fascism and the Media are equally bound by their obsession with optics, with the illusion of popular representation and the illusion of representation alike. As a very astute observer of the rise of Nazism put it, "Half of the success of the movement seems to have been due to the impression that its success was absolutely inevitable."
How many votes can the Blue Meanies count on for the future, and how many must they count against them? It's all a question of optics: because of the way the Austrian Ministry of the Interior calculates the vote it’s hard to figure out how many actually voted for the fascist, as opposed to those who simply abstained. In my own district in Vienna only 389 voters out of 702 bothered to vote in the second round, and of those only 76 went for the fascist; it’s comforting to know that fewer than a tenth of my neighbors are swivel-eyed fruitcakes, a better percentage than you’d find in Neuilly-sur-Seine or Staten Island. Then again, since Athenian Democracy elections have reflected the political dynamics of a narrowly defined segment of society, not the dynamics of the culture as a whole; the purpose of an electoral system, like the purpose of a national administration, is and has been to relegate to the ranks of the invisible the migrants and illegals, the guest-workers and non-citizens, the dominated gender or race—all those who must, in the interest of capital, be kept in a permanent state of dispossession and powerlessness. As Marx noted, the political society of which the State pretends to be an incarnation has little in common with the actual civil society it wishes to silence and displace; this is why fascist movements and Ideological State Apparatuses need to present themselves, not as advocates of the population, but as the Nation itself made visible, one and indivisible; this is why any implication, like that given by the recent Austrian elections, that the fascists do not reflect the Popular Will as a whole, becomes to them an existential threat. A friend of mine told me her conservative parents, in a very conservative part of Austria, had decided to vote for the Green candidate, reasoning that since they're both royalists they had to ask themselves, “What would the Kaiser do?“ And since the Kaiser, unlike the fascists, would want us all to try to get along despite our real and irreducible differences, they would vote Green: to the republican model of covert discrimination posing as formal universality, they preferred the older model of overt formal discrimination tempered by a posture of universal tolerance.
And this is our Weimar Moment in another sense, whether in France, America or Austria: when a liberal regime, unable to maintain its legitimacy by an inadequate system of democratic representation, survives by quietly tolerating the suppression of the voices of civil society—first among them the voices of resistance against that Fascism with which the State itself is so deeply compromised. A common tactic of the Government in Weimar Germany, was to allow the Nazis a legal permit to march so that any spontaneous reaction by the “Bolsheviks” could be firmly repressed. A common tactic of the Nazis was to march in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in order to provoke “Judeo-Bolshevik violence” and to manufacture victimhood for themselves by any means necessary. On June 11 in Leopoldstadt, the old Jewish quarter of Vienna, a hundred and fifty fascists rioted after false rumors were circulated that one of their comrades was lying in a coma. One of the circulators was Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the far-right party. After which the fascist Party Secretary congratulated the Austrian Police for their use of pepper-spray and arrests against “extreme-left violence.” One hand washes the other.
But this is Austria, not Weimar Germany. In 1927 the Austro-Marxists, who had controlled Vienna since 1919, were on the verge of taking over the Austrian State in national elections. After continuous judicial and police repression against Viennese workers (many of them with non-German roots) led to riots, the National Government effectively staged a coup against itself, dissolving the Parliament and ruling by decree. Last month the extreme right-wing explicitly stated that it would use a victory in the forthcoming elections to do the same. Then, having failed at the ballot box, it attempted to use a complaisant judiciary and an equally complaisant media to overturn the results through legal chicanery, and by the same token to deligitimize the judicial process; they succeeded on both counts. After the fascist had shown themselves unable to prove anything except a fairly generalized sloppiness in the timing of the vote-counting by all parties, the Constitutional Court still ruled that a new, nationwide election must be held in September. As they say in Leopoldstadt,
The challenge now is not so much that the Meanies will win the next election, which is scheduled for September: that seems unlikely since by colluding with the Blue challenger the Judiciary has dispelled any illusion that the two parties, the Meanies and the Established Order, stand in opposition; if anything, the decision of the Constitutional Court reinforces the suspicion that the Establishment will stop the Green candidate at all and any cost—Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn rolled into one, and for similar reasons: the Greens are, relatively, outside the "Proporz," the scratch-my-back system of power-sharing that's been in place in Austria since 1945. Bürgermeister Haüpl's prediction may have been premature: like the Clinton Campaign in America the Blue Meanies have a considerable financial and institutional advantage over the Greens; one suspects that's one reason the Court ordered a re-run.
There is another reason, unique to Austria. Shortly after the second round of elections the Blue Meany representatives in Vienna's Third District managed to veto the renaming of a local school after Friedrich Zawrel, claiming that Zawrel was a "criminal." Zawrel, in fact, was a survivor of the Nazi euthanasia program in Vienna, but that is not the reason the Blues got their knockwurst in a knot: Zawrel lived long enough to identify his tormentor, the eminent neurologist Heinrich ("The Scythe") Gross, expert witness to the Austrian courts, honored member of the Socialist Party, recipient of numerous grants from the City of Vienna and from prestigious Austrian scientific societies which enabled him to continue analysing the pickled brains of his young victims well into the 'seventies. The case against Gross—one of several—was last dismissed in 2001 by yet another complaisant Austrian judge: Wavrel's true "crime," to the Meanies, was blowing the whistle on the collusion of the Austrian Establishment with genocide. The deeper issue, of which l'affaire Gross was just a symptom, is that the far-right, as long as it retains a shred of power, will use that power to run down the clock on restitution for Nazi crimes: this was the explicit bargain that allowed Haider to share power, and it's the implicit bargain made between the Meanies and the Court. The Austrian Judiciary: giving Nazis a second chance since 1945.
Franz Fanon wrote that every generation must discover its historic mission and confront it or sink into irrelevancy. Once more, the Austrian political establishment has sunk into irrelevancy. Once again the Meanies have been handed another chance to legitimize and perpetuate the old policies of hate and divisiveness in the name of the People. The challenge today, for all Austrians, is whether the Austrians themselves will allow this travesty to continue into another generation; the fear, over the next three months, is that the Nazis—let's call them by their name—have been further emboldened, promising a long hot summer of violence and harassment. And yet.
The other day in Vienna a woman of African descent dressed in European clothes got on the tram, and in passing accidentally brushed against a light-skinned young man in jeans and earbuds. “No apologies?” he snapped, and she quickly moved to the back. This was unusual, because Viennese as a rule are uncomfortable with confrontation—what Bernd Marin delicately calls the "avoidance imperative." This young man, obviously, had a different view. Still he continued, with mumbled appeals against “Flüchtlinge” [refugees] and “Africans” and, seeing his mumblings were studiously ignored in the usual Viennese manner, got up and started toward the woman. In a flash six riders, all Europeans and of all ages and genders were standing between him and the woman with a determined look. I’ve never seen this before.
But I'm looking forward to seeing it again: Today in Vienna, in France, in America, in Scotland there are signs, at long last, that Civil Society is no longer content to develop on the margins of nationalistic politics; no longer content to exist outside the narrative framework of nationhood and governmental legitimacy, but actively engaged against the politics of nationalism, its administrative structure, its police. The rise of state-sponsored intolerance may yet meet its match in the rise of civil tolerance as an active form of resistance to the State. Écrasez l'Infâme.
with additional research by Elizabeth Ann Danto.
June 12, 2016; last revised 7/10/2016.