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The Political "Middle" Moves to the Right

"The political-social structural conditions for right-wing extremism, racism and nationalism are still largely unconsidered. A mono-causal reduction of problems to their constitutional, youthful or violent aspects narrows the perspective to visible phenomena and thus prevents analytical knowledge about the causes of right-wing extremism." "Migrants and the Mass Media" by Christoph Butterwegge is available on  http://www.mbtranslations.com.
The Political "Middle" Moves to the Right

By Christoph Butterwegge

[This article originally published in: junge welt, June 19, 2002, "Racism and Violence in the Political Middle", is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.uni-kassel.de/fb10/frieden/themen/Rassismus/butterwegg... Christoph Butterwegge is a professor of political science in Koln.]

Whether the "double passport", "green card" or the "German culture", the established parties take up themes first discussed in ultra-right circles. Waves of racist-motivated violence influence public debates on immigration and asylum policy.

Argumentation models of right-wing or extremist right-wing currents often refer to the discourse of the "middle". This "middle" increasingly takes up problems discussed in ultra-right circles. Therefore there are more and more overlappings between themes of the right and these of the "middle". In view of the Bundestag election campaign, the question is raised whether right-wing extremism from which all established parties distance themselves is a marginal (group) problem or a phenomenon of the middle. Regardless whether one understands the middle as a position between "left" and "right", "above" and "below" or the social center of power, the answer decides over measures to combat extremist right-wing tendencies.

Reinterpreted to a marginal problem

The public debates on "extremism" encounter the problem of an increasingly open, offensive and brutal racism or nationalism in an almost banal or hysterical way fixated on events and sensationalistic. The unreflected and opportunist association with acts of violence is dubious, not the moral indignation about dreadful acts of violence. Discussions about attacks on migrants are not free from contradictory interpretations, abridgments and political instrumentalization. In the political and expert public, excuses are frequently sought as explanations for racist acts of violence.

Complex themes like "juvenile violence", anti-foreigner attacks, smear campaigns and anti-semitic incidents (desecrations of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues) or the demand for a prohibition of the NPD were stressed. The political-social structural conditions for right-wing extremism, racism and nationalism are still largely unconsidererd. A mono-causal reduction of the problem to its constitutional, youthful or violent aspects narrows the perspective to visible phenomena and thus prevents analytical knowledge about the causes of right-wing extremism.

Right-wing extremism is treated as a "marginal" phenomenon in two ways - as a problem of marginalized groups and a marginal political note - or as a "protest" phenomenon directed against the whole society, its leadership or parliamentary democratic state. The "middle" relieves itself and delegates respo0nsibility for "extremist excesses" or right-wing "anti-foreigner" excesses of violence to "youth" or "skinheads". Right-wing extremism doesn't have responsibility any more for right-wing terror and racist attacks. These attacks are terminologically defused to merely "defensive reactions" of socially disadvantaged groups at the lowest end of the stratification hierarchy. Alongside the spectrum of extremist right-wing parties, the so-called skinhead scene is promoted to an identification object for explaining right-wing development. But the social ethnization tendencies were not critically analyzed but overshadowed by the public focus on the theme "Youth and Violence". A newspaper report is quoted where the right-wing is reduced to apolitical rivalries in masculine adolescence recalling phenomena in the animal kingdom: "stomping battles" with fists were waged among adolescents as in early times. However taboo limits are violated when striking, crushing or even killing occurs out of boredom, frustration and hatred. Old standards are not suited for explanation.

Extremism Theory

Left and right scenes are equated irrespective of their political standards of values whether radically against the right-wing or militant racist. A violence potential of the "political margins" is at the center of this ideologically motivated ascription. Racist acts of violence become accidental events with an event character - often under the influence of alcohol - and thus systematically minimized. Beside the phenomena of everyday racist-motivated violence without political organization, diverse extremist right-wing skinhead centers organized in "free comradeships" and other groups like the so-called Hammerskins reveal rigid organizational structures and a programmatic Nazi-reference. As a result, neo-nazi swing to the right networks like "Blood and Honor" or militant neo-nazi groups like "Saxon Switzerland Skinheads" (SSS) were outlawed. The last-named association is a terrorist group with weapons and explosives. It recruits from "respectable citizens", artisans, bank clerks and local councils, not from modernization losers. "They come from the middle of society and pursue very normal vocations", wrote Peter Gartner under the title "Nazis from the Middle of Society" on April 6, 2001 in the Hersfeld newspaper.

The scientific concentration on the extreme diverts from the middle and its responsibility for the political development of the country. Extremism researchers fade out the historical genesis and the role of the state in the development of right-wing extremism. They analyze persons, organizations and ideologies but ignore the reactions of institutions. Extremism theoreticians discuss right-wing and left-wing extremism primarily as adversaries of the political or state order, not as social phenomena rooted in society. They rely on a "defensive democracy" that keeps extremists from the left and the right from the center of political power without hindering them in their engagement, a standard that has already proven counter-productive given the alliances between the parties and right-wing populist, right-wing extremist and right-wing populist currents.

"Extremism" researchers pretend to be objective, purely scientific and neutral. However their relativizations discredit anti-fascist engagement and resist criticism of structural racism. In this argumentative context, institutional restrictions of minority- and civil rights are interpreted as necessary protections against right-wing extremism. Nevertheless the conclusions of extremism research are politically motivated.

The term "extremism of the middle" is controversial since it refers to the social base of the phenomenon or the middle class origin of its main protagonists while denying interactions between the center and the periphery. Terms like "new right" and "extremism of the middle" document the increasing uncertainty of the (expert-) public as to the nature, roots and forms of a changing phenomenon.

Depolitization of the Debate

As increasingly recognized in the expert discussion today, hostility to foreigners and racism or extremist right-wing tendencies manifest in the past and present in united Germany cannot be understood removed from discourses of the middle. Wilhelm Heitmeyer's remark that right-wing extremism develops "out of the middle of society" could be named here. Referring to the debates about organized right-wing extremism since the summer 2000, Heitmeyer identified its causes and promising counter-strategies: "The current discussion is defensive and pants behind the extremist right-wing groups. One starts at the end of the development process of misanthropic attitudes influencing the voting of the democratic parties, particularly in close electoral contests."

Ethnicizing ascriptions and nationalist positions have moved strongly into the political "middle" of society. As a result, the much invoked "consensus of democrats" against the widespread right-wing extremism has a problematic note. The urgently necessary resistance to right-wing extremism, racism and nationalism can only be effective when their structural causes are combated. When one's causes are combated. When one's personal responsibility in the excessive racism and excesses of established policy are thematicized, the publically proclaimed anti-fascism of the established politics changes to complete ignorance or denial. "I reject the thesis that extremism comes from the middle", declared interior minister Otto Schily when asked in the course of a ZEIT interview whether the gossip about the "German culture" produced the attacks on foreigners and encouraged right-wing extremism.

In the same interview addressing integration problems of the Turkish minority and tendencies to ghettoization, Schily sought understanding for all those migrants who when they come to Germany go to people with language and customs familiar to them. He added: "This quality is not strange to the German character. Germans overseas have always sought nearness to Germans.: With a term like "German character", the ethnicization of social behavior is encouraged in the course of argumentation for migration and cooperative intellectual life. Right-wing extremism, as many experiences demonstrate, - taken out of its political and aggregate social context - is understood as something "foreign". Only the "diehards" or "youths ready for violence", the "skinheads" or parties like the NPD are "right-wing" or "extremist right-wing". Public and institutional discussion is limited to observable phenomena of right-wing extremism.

The mass media usually refers to very spectacular incidents or violent crimes to stress the "perversity" and "difference" of right-wing extremists. A depolitization of the debate forces the structural conditions of the genesis, development and systematic diffusion of racist attitudes into the background. Threat scenarios in the context of immigration are designed that produce resentment and defensive attitudes towards migrants and refugees. The reinterpretation of socio-economic crisis processes in ethnic constellations gives argumentative support to racism. The tabloid or popular press plays a very inglorious role here. However journalists of the serious media also don't do justice to their responsibility. Waves of racist-motivated violence and attacks of the extreme right-wing influence public discussion around (possibilities or limits of) immigration and (problems of) asylum policy. Right-wing offenders - partly not without reason - can regard themselves as executors of a widely manifest "will of the people" underscored by corresponding declarations and opinions of established politicians. The world openness that is constantly proclaimed seems limited to what is "useful" for "one's own" economic position or national capital accumulation. An increasing rejection often meets asylum candidates slandered as "social parasites" or "parasites".

Criminal-Victim Inversion

Racist-motivated acts of violence occur in a social climate marked by horror reports about demographic change ("aging" and "shriveling" of the population) on one side and conflicts over the forms of immigration and cooperative intercultural life on the other side. Ethnicizing social relations and economic conflicts appears in controversies around reform of the citizenship law ("double passport"), initiatives for recruiting foreign experts ("green card") and the integration works expected from immigrants (adjustment to the "German culture").

On one hand neonazis and other right-wing extremists refer to positions of the middle in their argumentation, agitation and propaganda. Conversely, the middle increasingly take up these positions first only discussed in ultra-right circles. My main thesis is that there are increasing overlappings or ideological intersections between themes of the right and themes of the middle. The victims of arsons and attacks on migrants were partly made responsible for the escalation of right-wing aggression, not the perpetrators. Thus Trier scientists wrote after they tested empirically explanatory models for anti-foreigner violence: "The violence has something to do with unprocessed waves of immigration thrusts." A singular situation, the overstrain of the communes by two overlapping waves of immigration (of refugees and asylum seekers), led to conflicts now making possible the second stage of the anti-foreigner movement in Germany.
According to Werner Bergmann, "protest mobilization from the right" flows into a socio-cultural movement nourished by personal "experience of foreignness in mass migration processes".

The migration still increasing in the sign of globalization appears not as a trigger but as a cause of violent "defensive reactions". The mobilization of resentment by the media and established politics precedes these reactions. In her analysis of the intensified asylum discussion in 1991/92, Anne Claire Froffmann showed convincingly that juvenile violent criminals were functionalized in two ways by the Union and its journalist helpers: "Firstly, they served as a proof how immigration brought the population into a difficult situation. Secondly, the strong stigmatization diverted from the substantive nearness and produced a seemingly clear distance between the arguments of the Union parties and the deeds of the young persons."

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