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The Info War of All Against All

Georg Hochmuth/AFP/Getty Images)
Martin Sellner, an Austrian leader of the far-right Identitarian Movement, Vienna, March 29, 2019

“The powerlessness of our enemies is they are still trying to describe and fight us as if we were the old right-wing fringe groups that they faced decades before,” Martin Sellner, a figurehead of the European Identitarian Movement, told me, speaking from his flat in Vienna, Austria. “Our job as the avant-garde from the right is to show the people that the normality of tomorrow doesn’t have to be what is considered normal today. Political normality is something very volatile, dynamic, and relative.”

He sent over his recorded answers for a BBC radio documentary I was making, which in turn drew on ideas from my new book about how propaganda is changing in the twenty-first century. My BBC producer and I fretted whether we risked abetting Sellner’s strategy of normalizing the far right by having him in the program. In the end, we decided to include him because we judged that the strategies he advocates need to be understood for what they reveal about certain pathologies in the formation of public opinion. And these have implications that reach well beyond his personal ambitions and those of the far right.  

Sellner is known for his promotion of the “great replacement” theory, the idea that global elites are purposefully diluting ethnicity, an idea that was invoked this month in the manifesto released online by the mass-shooter in El Paso, Texas. The El Paso shooter also shared with Sellner a penchant for using the language of liberal rights for illiberal aims. The shooter described his desire to stop intermarriage between races as a way to protect “diversity,” comparing ethnic integrity of whites in the US to that of American Indians. By exploiting the language of progressive causes, the El Paso shooter was simultaneously trying to smuggle taboo racism back into accepted discourse while hollowing out the language of the far right’s purported opponents—pastiching it into meaninglessness.

Sellner also speaks of rights and freedoms, and argues that he is protecting women’s rights, especially with his proposal that Europe be rid of all Muslims through “remigration.” His methods of promoting these views are unorthodox. In one performance he stage-managed, several Identitarian women attending a meeting in support of women’s rights in Germany let off rape alarms as a symbolic way of publicizing cases of rape committed by Muslim migrants. In another stunt, in December 2016, Sellner’s group placed a burqa over the statue of the Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna. It’s the sort of “culture-jamming” tactic one might in the past have associated with anti-capitalist Situationist groups such as the Yes Men; here, it was being used for quite other aims.

Sellner told me he takes inspiration specifically from the pro-democracy mass movement manuals written by Serbian activists who, starting in 1996–1997, orchestrated a wave of demonstrations that paved the way for Slobodan Milošević’s eventual defeat in elections in Yugoslavia in 2000. The activists developed a blueprint for political change that went from developing an alternative political vision, through street actions and then translating that energy into an electoral strategy. Milosevic had sponsored wars to ethnically cleanse Yugoslavia of Muslims. Serbian student activists used street theater to highlight his cruelty and absurdity while advocating for a Serbia that was open to the world and eventually found a candidate to unite enough of the country.

Twenty years later, Sellner’s aim of “remigrating” Muslims is closer to Milošević’s actions, but his language and tactics are those of the pro-democracy opposition: he, too, has an alternative political vision, a monocultural Europe, uses street actions to advocate his cause and herds different right wing groups to back anti-immigration parties such as the AFD in Germany and the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France. He claims he is fighting what he calls the “soft authoritarianism” of multiculturalism. By draping himself in the linguistic garb of pro-democracy dissidents and adopting the street theater tactics associated with progressive activists he is using the language of rights to attack a rights-based politics.

Yet this topsy-turviness, where the old associations between words and images are being ripped apart and reconstituted in new ways, is not reserved to the right. Activists, spin doctors, propagandists, and preachers on all sides apprehend what they see as a unique moment to remake political meanings. One of the most articulate advocates of this thinking on the left is Chantal Mouffe, the Belgian political theorist and leading intellectual of “left populism,” whose ideas have been taken up by political parties such as Podemos in Spain and La France Insoumise, and have influenced many other movements.

In the decades since the 1980s, and after the victory of capitalism over communism in the cold war, we have lived, Mouffe told me, within a sense of the “normal” to which there has seemed no alternative. Words and concepts that had been so important for those struggling for freedom from authoritarian rule in the twentieth century Mouffe now saw as having been co-opted by purely economic interests: “choice,” for example, had become a way to justify relinquishing public control of schools and hospitals; “liberty” had migrated in meaning to bolster the selling-off of state assets.

“Liberal democracy” itself, Mouffe argued, had skewed too far toward an idea of liberalism that had been used to privilege giving more freedom to financial powers, when what citizens needed was more democracy, or what she termed “equality.” It was as though Mouffe wanted to prise apart words and meanings that she felt had been soldered together incorrectly. Or rather, in her view, the social and political discontent that followed the financial crash of 2008 had caused the old semantic consensus to break apart. Now we were in a flux, with all sides competing to re-weld political speech.

Mouffe often refers—as does Sellner—to the early twentieth-century Italian Communist thinker Antonio Gramsci, who argued that we live in periods of culturally constructed notions of “common sense,” a conventional wisdom that becomes so ingrained as to operate on an unconscious level, masquerading as the natural order of things. Revolutionary change can happen only when one such system of common sense collapses and the fight for what will replace it begins.

Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A Columbia Journalism Review initiative to educate news consumers about the dangers of fake news, New York City, October 30, 2018

Mouffe told me an anecdote from France, where left-wing politicians had traveled to parts of the country that had always voted for the right-wing nationalist, anti-immigrant party of Marine Le Pen and tried to persuade voters that their real enemy wasn’t foreigners but the financial elites who kept them poor. “Identities are the result of political construction,” she said. Mouffe saw even notions such as “the people” as being up for grabs, providing an identity on which a political strategy could be built. The contest, as she saw it, was between those who sought to define “the people” around an idea of economic injustice, and those who were trying to convince people to see things along ethnic and racial lines; each camp constructed an enemy, the “anti-people,” accordingly.

“It can go into a more authoritarian direction, or it can go also toward a more democratic thing,” she said when I asked how she felt about the far right using the same strategies. “The whole question is how you construct the ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

The power of this model of remaking meaning lies in uniting emotional drives with identity, language, and political values. Mouffe believes that left populism needs to be infused with psychoanalytic insights, to satisfy a deep human need to belong and to act as an outlet for the outpourings of Eros, the desire to live and create. (Unfortunately populism, it seems to me, is just as likely to supply what Freud called Thanatos, the desire for death and destruction, in its determination to define in/out groups and us/them categories.) In the mid-twentieth century, social critics on the left such as Theodor Adorno argued that capitalist advertising works by connecting psychological needs for belonging and parental love to consumer products. Can left populism achieve a similar trick for non-capitalist purposes?

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It is not just movements in the West—itself a concept whose meaning is crumbling—that invoke this sort of strategy. Though they would not cite Freud, the ideologues of the international Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir advocate similar principles. Hizb was the first modern movement of “political Islam” to call for the establishment of an Islamic state. Its proponents believed this could be achieved through peaceable military coups in Arab states. During the early 2000s, Hizb’s ideas became popular in a wide variety of locales—from Britain to Central and Southeast Asia. Only more recently, in the 2010s, did ISIS take over those ideas, giving them an ultra-violent spin when it achieved its short-lived “caliphate” through force of arms and conquest.

Hizb was founded in the early 1950s by a Palestinian Islamic scholar, Taqiuddin al-Nabhani. Al-Nabhani argued that the creation of Israel was a sign that Muslims were weak, unable to stand up for each other, corrupted by Western notions like the nation-state, which had splintered the Islamic umma, the greater community of Muslims, into separate countries. It was therefore, he argued, the very language and concepts through which people saw the world that had to change.

At the heart of Hizb’s ideology is the idea of the “Islamic personality.” It argues that a person has natural instincts that have to be fulfilled, but training yourself to think in the correct way would channel those instincts into the correct behavior. So, for example, it argued that man has a natural instinct for security, which is expressed in the quest to acquire things and property. Marxism, on one hand, suppressed that instinct and was therefore destined to fail. Capitalism, on the other hand, over-indulged it, while undermining another instinct, which expressed itself as the need to feel part of a community. Political Islam, Hizb preached, fulfilled both needs: it allowed one to realize the need both for security, by allowing a certain amount of private property, and for what it termed “procreation,” an instinctive desire to belong to a greater community. Islam satisfies this, Hizb argued, by granting membership in the umma.

Today, one can see how this approach has trickled down, so that it has come to be practiced daily by the online recruiters of violent extremist movements. ISIS operatives, for example, will first scan a potential target’s social media profile, see what a person’s favorite interests and hobbies are, and then try to engage with them accordingly. If they feel a young woman is interested in religion, romance, a family, they might strike up a conversation about the virtues of having a Salafi husband. If a person doesn’t respect God, they argue, how can he be expected to respect his wife? If a woman is looking for the perfect marriage, then she should travel to the Islamic State.  

Strategies like those adopted by Mouffe, Sellner, and Hizb—as unlikely a bracketing of political technicians as this might seem—have been in development for at least half a century, but it is now that they are flourishing. This is partly because, as Mouffe argues, many people have come to see as a failure the dominant socio-economic model that was supposed to achieve ever-greater prosperity, a version of democratic capitalism once celebrated as victorious in the cold war. Donald Trump is emblematic of a condition in which coherent narratives and the way they have of ordering the world have broken down, his verbal Magimix-ing and Twitter-rhea rarely allowing any stable meaning.

For those who watch Russia closely, this crisis occurred there back in the early 1990s, when liberalizing reforms that were advertised as guaranteeing prosperity ended up causing mass misery. As the languages of both communism and liberal-democratic capitalism were rendered empty for many Russians, political discourse there went into the blender. Soon, there was, for example, a “liberal democratic party” that was neither liberal nor democratic, but intolerant, redistributive, and imperialist. 

Putin’s propagandists went to work on this flux early in his rule. They devised the doctrine of “sovereign democracy,” which retained the façade and symbols of democracy, such as political parties and elections, but in practice subordinated all political and democratic processes to strict control by the Kremlin. And so they cannibalized the language of democracy from inside. Given their long domestic experience of such official subversion, it’s no accident that the Kremlin’s technicians are far ahead in the international game, adept at speaking the discourses of both the new left and the new right in Europe and the US.

Thus they succeed in packaging Russia as a bastion of white traditionalist culture to the Identitarians and their American ilk, while simultaneously winning the friendship of left-populist parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Across the West, Russia finds leftist politicians and intellectuals willing to accept at face value its posture of anti-imperialism. The more both new right and new left try to game the fluctuating lines of language and loyalty, the more experienced the Kremlin becomes in playing these novices and amateurs.

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democract of Connecticut, pointing to an image of a deceptive Twitter post during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Russian disinformation, Washington, D.C., October 31, 2017

These mind games have acquired a new level of intensity because they are being fought out online. The once-powerful platforms of the old media helped hold together the old associations between images, words, feelings, meanings. They were able to govern a consensus of acceptability and normality based on their domination over the means of information production—or, to put it more simply, they acted as gatekeeper to what people talked about and how they did so. If these paternalistic old media bastions still stood, then one would most likely see a new normal settle eventually after this period of crisis and contest. But the new modes of instant, constant digital connection have abolished their authority; there is no barrier to entry policed by a gatekeeper, and anyone can jump into the fray at any moment. There were always battles of ideas, especially at times when anciens régimes collapsed. Today, though, the battle is not a structured affair with common rules and clear victories, but an all-out war of all against all with no discernible end-point. 

It is no coincidence that social media’s favorite genre is memes: these images that constantly change meaning as they are defaced with new phrases are symptoms of a time when sense is ceaselessly unstable. The Identitarians’ social media channels, for example, have their own meme factories, where activists are provided with existing pictures and then reinscribe them with their own words to change their meaning. One Identitarian meme, for example, showed an illustration in saturated colors of a happy American family that was right out of a 1950s advert—but with the words “Right Wing Extremists” printed below. The subverted message was that traditional ways of life are being marginalized, and its purpose was to make Identitarians look like safe small “c” conservatives, rather than the extremists they are often tagged as. The ironic tone so prevalent in the manufacture of memes is important, too: irony is precisely a mode of expression in which the surface meaning of words doesn’t match what is actually being said.

The first to capitalize on the opportunities afforded in this new contest have been those forces—from the left to Islamists, to the far right, to the Kremlin—that have long felt marginalized and excluded from mainstream discourse. If they all have a common enemy, it is the “centrists” and “elites” whom they accuse, variously, of opening up borders too much and letting in too many foreigners, or of giving too much sway to global capital and corporations, or of permitting too much irreligious and corrupting culture. Today, though, even the liberal centrists are learning to operate in the new flux.

Switzerland provides a striking example, with Flavia Kleiner leading a successful referendum movement run by a liberal initiative called Operation Libero to defeat the anti-immigration plans of the Swiss right. Kleiner’s skill has been to appropriate the language of Swiss conservative right-wing parties against them. Her big success came in February 2016, when her campaign beat back a proposal from the right-wing SVP to deport any immigrant who had committed even the most minor criminal offense. As Kleiner recently told The Guardian:

It was clear that if we talked about criminal foreigners, we’d become the defenders of criminal foreigners. We’d have lost before we started. Instead, we set the terms of the debate by portraying the SVP’s proposal as an attack against fundamental Swiss values. Against the constitution as a pillar of our liberal democracy; the rule of law; equal justice for all. We were the patriots here, because this was an attack on things that every Swiss citizen holds dear.

Seizing back from the nationalist right the patriotic language of “fundamental Swiss values” proved effective:

She first thought they might win when she heard two women talking about the upcoming referendum in a shop: “One said, ‘Can you imagine? It would mean a family man, a father, being deported, just like that, for driving a bit too fast.’ And the other said: ‘I wouldn’t want that happening to me. It’s not right.’”

What Kleiner’s example suggests is that if actors like Sellner can exploit liberal language for their rightist causes, centrists can just as easily hijack conservative language for liberal ones, too. Sellner’s meme factory pushed out pictures that tried to show the Identitarians as defenders of family values. Kleiner’s referendum campaign won by persuading voters that it was her side that was defending the family.

Sellner often cites his aim of moving the “Overton Window,” the idea of reconfiguring language and values in order to shift the parameters of what is considered acceptable discourse, in turn paving the way for social change previously blocked as unthinkable. This was implied when he told me that “our job as the avant-garde from the right is to show the people that the normality of tomorrow doesn’t have to be what is considered normal today.” But what if no stable new normal emerges?

One can move the Overton Window all one wants, but if the edifice around it has collapsed, then one is left running around foolishly waving a window-frame amid the ruins. Sellner thinks he is winning with his culture-jamming tactics, overturning stable meanings and appropriating the language of the liberal-left to redefine “political normality.” But many play at this game and anyone can quickly be left behind. What happens when the far right finds itself trying to “describe and fight” a liberalism that has transformed its capacity to manufacture new meanings as much as the far right has?