The Albatross of Racism

Immanuel Wallerstein writes about Europe’s oldest disgrace

More than a year ago I was invited to speak on ‘Social Science in an Age of Transition’ in Vienna. I was happy to accept. Vienna had a glorious role in the building of world social science, in the era of Traum und Wirklichkeit (1870-1930), especially. It was Freud’s home, until he was forced to flee to London, and also, for an important part of their lives, Schumpeter’s and Polanyi’s, in my view the two most important political economists of the 20th century. It was to this Vienna that I was going.

Then came the Austrian election, with its far from inevitable consequence – the inclusion of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs in the Government. The other EU states suspended bilateral relations with Austria. I had to consider whether I still wanted to go to Vienna and I hesitated. Eventually I decided to do so, for two reasons. First, I wished to affirm my solidarity with dem anderen Österreich, which has manifested itself so visibly since the new Government was installed. Even more important, I went in order to assume my responsibilities as a social scientist. The dead albatross that hangs around our neck is our legacy of arrogance, our racism. And we must struggle to atone, to reconstruct, to create a different historical system.

On the surface what happened in Austria seems quite simple. For a number of successive legislatures, the country had been governed by a national coalition of the two major and mainline parties, the Sozial-democratische Partei Österreichs and the Österreichische Volkspartei. One is centre-left and the other centre-right and Christian Democratic. Their combined vote, at one time overwhelming, declined throughout the 1990s. And in the 1999 elections, the FPÖ for the first time came second in the ballot, surpassing the ÖVP by a few hundred votes. Subsequent discussions between the two mainstream parties on forming another national coalition failed, and the ÖVP turned to the FPÖ. In doing so, it upset many people in Austria, including President Klestil, but it persisted, and the new Government was formed.

The ÖVP’s decision also upset, and surprised, the political leaders of the other EU states. Although some have questioned the wisdom of the collective decision to suspend bilateral relations with Austria, the EU has maintained its position – and, in turn, upset not only those Austrians who supported the formation of the Government but many of its opponents, who took the view that the EU was overreacting. ‘Haider,’ they said, ‘is no Hitler.’ Others argued that equivalents of Haider could be found in all the EU states, and even in their governments, and that the EU was therefore guilty of hypocrisy. And finally, some Austrians argued (as did some other Europeans) that it would have been more appropriate for the EU to wait and see, and if eventually the new Austrian Government did something reprehensible, action could more suitably be taken at that point. Meanwhile, within Austria itself, a Widerstand – a resistance – was launched, which is still going on.

Neither the reaction of the EU nor the Austrian counter-reaction can be understood without looking at the world-system and how social scientists have interpreted it, In this context I propose to consider the world-system in four time frames: since 1989; since 1945; since 1492; and after 2000.

Since 1989, a great deal of attention has been concentrated on the former Communist countries. Endless conferences of social scientists have been devoted to the ‘transition’, and we now speak of ‘transitology’. In the component parts of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Caucasian areas of the Soviet Union, there have been a number of civil wars, in which outside powers have been actively involved. Social scientists have analysed this violence under headings such as ‘ethnic purification’, a phenomenon seen as the result of longstanding ethnic hostilities. Even in places that have escaped high levels of internal violence, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states, there have been signs of resurgent ethnic tension. At the same time, similar kinds of full-scale and low-level civil wars have been occurring in parts of Africa as well as in Indonesia.

In the pan-European world (by which I mean Western Europe plus North America and Australasia, but not east-central Europe), analysis of these wars has centred on the presumed weakness of civil society in those states and the low level of their historic concern for human rights. No one who has read the press in Western Europe can have missed the degree to which coverage of the post-Communist world has focused on the absence of the higher level of modernity found in the pan-European world.

Equally striking is how little attention has been paid – by the press, by politicians, and especially by social scientists – to what has changed since 1989 in the pan-European world itself. Political regimes which had built their national logic on the Cold War discovered that the arrangements they had sustained for forty years now seemed pointless, to their voters and to the politicians themselves. Why in Italy have a system of coalitions built around a permanent Christian Democratic majority if there is no Cold War? What is there now to hold a Gaullist party together in France, or even the CDU in Germany? Why should the US Republican Party continue to be bound by the constraints of a ‘bilateral foreign policy’? The consequence of these self-doubts is that the major conservative parties in the pan-European world are crumbling, torn apart by divisions between economic liberalism and social conservatism, whether of the kind that wishes the state to rectify the degraded morality of the citizenry or the kind that retains a paternalist concern for social safety-nets.

The centre-left parties, most of which call themselves social-democratic, are in trouble, too. The collapse of Communism was only the culmination of a spreading disillusionment with the Old Left in all its three main versions, Communism, social-democracy and national liberation: a disillusionment that followed, not so paradoxically, from the movements’ success – their accession to power around the world. For once in power, they showed themselves incapable of fulfilling their historic promise.

In Western Europe, by and large, the Old Left meant social-democrats. People may still vote for these parties as a pis aller, but since 1968, let alone 1989, no one dances in the streets when they win an election. No one expects them to bring about a revolution, not even a peaceful one. And most disillusioned of all are their own leaders, who are reduced to the centrist language of der Mitte. With this disillusionment has come a disengagement from the processes of the state. Before, states had been tolerated by their populations, even regarded as potential agents of social transformation. Now they were coming to be seen primarily as agents of corruption and of the use of unnecessary force – no longer the citizen’s rampart but the citizen’s burden.

Austria is merely one instance in a general pan-European trend. Why have a national coalition in the post-Communist era? Why vote for parties whose primary interest is in maintaining the political status quo? The end of the Cold War explains why the FPÖ received 26.9 per cent of the vote on 3 October 1999 – the highest percentage achieved by any far-right party in any European country since 1945. In 1995, Le Pen got 15.1 per cent, and this was a shock. But the two main conservative parties in France insisted that they would reject any support offered by the Front National at any level. In the regional elections of 1998, the conservative parties were able to form majorities in a large number of regions only with the support of FN politicians. When five leaders ignored the directive and obtained FN support for their regional governments, they were promptly expelled from their parties. In Italy, Berlusconi did form a government with the support of Fini and his Alianza Nazionale, a party similar to Haider’s, but Fini had renounced his neo-fascist past before the elections.

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