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Orban & Co.: The Siren of Identity That Is Seducing Europe

The weakening of universalistic values cannot be counteracted simply by appealing to them: we have to understand why that siren is so popular

by Sergio Salvatore - the European Institute of Cultural Analysis for Policy (EICAP)

European flag(Giampaolo Squarcina / Flickr.com).

Before this anthropological more than political drift, the temptation many contemporary liberal thinkers – be they from the left or right – is to adopt a defensive position. Yet, in so doing what is fostered is, paradoxically, the “we/them” juxtaposition and with it the consequent militarization of affects that is the fuel of the ultra-right project

At the end of the last July, the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban gave a speech to the 29th Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp (Romania). The speech was not widely reported in European newspapers. This is a pity, because it is an explicit, lucid political manifesto for Europe, delivered for the sake of mobilizing public opinion for the upcoming European Parliament election to be held next Spring. What is particularly instructive in this speech is the chance it gives to clarify that the critical positions of the Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) on migration and on the role of European institutions, as well as the illiberal involution of internal political systems (mainly but not only in Hungary and Poland) are not just a local reaction by young post-communist democracies to the economic and refugee crises. What Orban proposed last July – making what he has been repeating over recent years even more explicit and systematic – is a true political project, animated by the vision of going beyond liberal democracy and replacing it with what he calls “Christian democracy” (Here and henceforth excerpts from Orban’s speech are reported in italics).

Orban is keen to specify that Christian democracy does not mean a return to theocracy – “Christian democracy is not about defending religious articles of faith – in this case Christian religious articles of faith. Neither states nor governments have competence on questions of damnation or salvation”. Rather, Christian democracy concerns the defence of the culture and way of life derived from and based on the Christian credo. More specifically, there are four basic principles that Christian politics aims to defend: human dignity (one could add: as intended by Christian values), family, communities (intended by Orban as “faith communities”), and nation – “because Christianity does not seek to attain universality through the abolition of nations, but through the preservation of nations”.

Thus, according to Orban Christian democracy is the project of a political system at the service of defending the roots of European societies’ identity – not only that of Central European countries, but of all Europe.

One would need to be blind not to see the success being achieved by the ultra-right populist project embodied by Orban’s speech. These forces have been gaining more and more momentum in most European countries. Just to give an example, many observers may be surprised and sad to see that the more Salvini (the Italian Interior Minister, leader of the Lega, the ultra-right populist party that was the actual winner of the recent election in Italy and who considers Orban one of his main interlocutors) makes anti-immigrant decisions and the more these acts are against international law and fly in the face of elementary humanitarian principles, the more political support he gains among the Italian population. Again, a recent survey revealed that trust in Pope Francis has decreased in Italy, especially among youth, mainly because of his pro-immigrant position. On the other hand, the Re.Cri.Re. analysis of several European societies’ cultural milieu has shown that about 1/3 of the people encompassed by the survey are characterized by a view of identity and belongingness as the only form of defence from strangers, viewed simply as threat/foe.

One should ask what makes a vision of Europe that clearly goes against the ideal of unity and democracy pursued for the last half century so seductive.

Looking carefully at Orban’s speech, one can find several pointers to answer to this question.

First, Orban provides an all-encompassing diagnosis that identifies the culprit and the cause of all problems: the European elite that has destroyed the European identity – “[European elite failed because] first of all it has rejected its roots, and instead of a Europe resting on Christian foundations, it is building a Europe of “the open society”.

Second, a mythic past is juxtaposed to the critical present, in so doing a vision of the future is envisaged, consisting of a return to what-was-and-now-is-not –“In Christian Europe there was honour in work, man had dignity, men and women were equal, the family was the basis of the nation, the nation was the basis of Europe, and states guaranteed security. In today’s open-society Europe there are no borders; European people can be readily replaced with immigrants; the family has been transformed into an optional, fluid form of cohabitation; the nation, national identity and national pride are seen as negative and obsolete notions; and the state no longer guarantees security in Europe.”.

Third, this juxtaposition is grounded on a global narration that reduces decades of history to the relation between two alternative worlds. Everyone and everything finds its place in the narrative ordered so defined, where what is right and good and what is wrong and bad are sharply distinguished. . “If you think back over the past one hundred years or so of European democracy, you can detect a pattern in which matters in Europe have effectively been decided by competition between two camps: on one side, communities based on the continuing foundations of Christian tradition – let us call them Christian democratic parties; and, on the other side, the organisations of communities which question and reject tradition – let us call them left-wing liberal parties. Europe moved forward with these two forces competing with each other.

Fourth, an easy solution is provided – just one button has to be pushed to restore the right order of things: to defend from Muslims and immigration (assimilated with each other), which are the obstacle to Christian democracy. Accordingly, the next European election is outlined as the final struggle between those who want migrants and therefore want to destroy the European identity and those who want to save it from the invasion – “The time has indeed come for the European elections to be about a great, important, common European issue: the issue of immigration, and the future related to it”.

In sum, what appears evident is the clarity and simplicity of the message. In a few brush strokes it provides the audience with a clear-cut scenario, easy to grasp and to be used for interpreting what is happening, to identify friend and foe and take a stance with respect to them

Experts, opinion leaders and researchers may find such a narrative simplistic, rather than simple. Concerns may be raised about its capacity to outline an effective solution to the intertwined issues that have to be tackled in the globalized world. Moreover, one may find it paradoxical to appeal to the future “Thirty years ago we thought that Europe was our future. Today we believe that we are Europe’s future.” – in terms of a restoration of a mythical past. Above all, it may be surprising that so many people can welcome a project that by the explicit admission of their leaders, envisages an overriding of the current political system in the direction of what Orban himself calls – “Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues – say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favour of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.”

Before this anthropological more than political drift, the temptation many contemporary liberal thinkers – be they from the left or right – is to adopt a defensive position, aimed at contrasting the allegedly civic values of liberal democracy (solidarity, human rights, universalism) to the illusory panacea of identity which is the core of the populist/ultra-right proposal. Yet, in so doing what is fostered is, paradoxically, the “we/them” juxtaposition and with it the consequent militarization of affects that is the fuel of the ultra-right project. On the other hand, the very fact that such numerous and increasing segments of European societies are seduced by the siren of identity, regardless of its dehumanizing, illiberal implications, should make it clear that the weakening of universalistic values cannot be counteracted simply by appealing to them, just as a sick person is not restored to health just because someone invites him/her to do so. What is needed is to get rid of the normative/Enlightenment approach (illusion?)– i.e. the idea that the populist solution is clearly wrong and that what one must therefore do is to help people understand this self-evident truth – and to accept the challenge of understanding deeply what fundamental demand the identity narration is able to satisfy with such impressive efficacy when other political and institutional proposals fail to do so.

Only in this way can the foundation of a different project be laid.

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