For the soft authoritarian regimes of the post-liberal West, political repression is both a considerable risk and a very limited resource.
Some responded to yesterday’s post with the argument that banning Alternative für Deutschland is the best thing for the German political establishment. They see this as a power move – one which will merely open the way for more draconian extremist policies in the future. My systemic theses of modern politics often attract the complaint that I am excessively demoralised and pessimistic, but this view is too bleak even for me.
You have to understand that the Federal Republic, particularly since the Merkel era, has entered a state of serious dysfunction. It is like a poorly loaded washing machine that seems at any moment about to burn out or tip over. The failures arise from serious internal problems, and not any victory by the opposition, but they are no less grave for that. The regime has cultivated a closed, inward-looking political establishment which depends heavily on controlled state media discourse, cannot internalise critique, has lost touch with vast sectors of the population, and can no longer moderate its own policies. This is to varying degrees the case across the entire West, but it’s especially true here. The series of crises which have driven the AfD to ever greater heights of support are bad for the Scholz coalition government and they’re bad for the establishment as a whole.
Much of the damage was also at least theoretically avoidable, and arises from the internal self-radicalisation spirals to which leftist political systems are subject. Any programme, once it has been run through the progressive-left machine, ends up as a moral system where the correct position lies at the extreme end of one axis. We saw this happen with mass containment: More lockdowns, more vaccines, more testing, were always and everywhere the right answer. Anybody advising moderation, however prudent and advisable, will simply be outflanked by extremists to his left. Once you are in a system like this, it doesn’t matter what you personally believe, you either push as hard as possible for the most extreme goals, or you’ll be forced out. From mass migration to the energy transition, the self-radicalising regime will demand the absolute maximum that is politically and socially tolerable in the moment, and no less.
This imprudent and stupid political style has now driven one out of every five Germans into the arms of the right-populists in the AfD. The ruling class, apparently sensing that they can’t slow down even for strategic purposes, now look to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution to save them. It is always dangerous to predict the future, but I very much doubt an AfD ban will further their interests. To begin with, it won’t happen overnight. The procedure would last many months, and entail oceans of free publicity for AfD politicians, propelling their popular support to even greater heights. After the ban, the alienated voters would not simply vanish. Other parties would form to represent them; Sahra Wagenknecht, of Die Linke, has been talking about forming one such party for some time now. These parties, at least initially, would not be subject to the cordon sanitaire that has excluded the AfD from government. Local districts and state parliaments, especially in the East, would have to form governing coalitions with these upstart parties, and for the first time these excluded views would have a direct voice in government. Some of these AfD successor organisations would of course attract the attention of the constitutional protectors and receive their own bans in turn, but only after similarly drawn-out publicity-laden bureaucratic wrangling. Others would probably seek to evade bans by forming strategically around specific issues that are much harder for the constitutional protectors to target. I could envision the rise of a specifically anti-NATO party, for example. In short, banning the AfD without appeasing their politically alienated supporters would resemble sending not a Heracles but a Karl Lauterbach forth to decapitate the Lernaean Hydra.
But that is not all. Banning the AfD, beyond being a massive risk and a considerable expense, is also something else: It is represents a change in the nature of the governing regime. Imagine a turn-based board game, with a limited number of foreordained moves. I don’t know how many moves there are, and they don’t either; perhaps there are a hundred, or merely five or six. If the populist opposition, by crossing a specific threshold, forces the regime to adopt new mechanisms of repression, that is one move. This reaction will limit some options and open others, preparing the board for the next move. With each move, the state will have to discard more and more of its post-liberal pseudo-democratic trappings and act in more overtly authoritarian ways to retain power. Everyone in charge is extremely reluctant to do this, because unlike the pandemic repressions, these will prove nearly impossible to reverse. They want to govern in an indefinite, unending political status quo, and keep these moves in reserve as long as possible, because sooner or later there will be no more of them, and each one sends more people to the ranks of the opposition.
Our entire political establishment is calibrated for what I like to call soft authoritarianism. Unlike hard authoritarian systems such as the DDR, the soft authoritarian state has a limited security apparatus and depends upon media messaging and the soft comforts of economic prosperity. Modern Germany can ban parties and vilify their leaders, but they don’t have anything like the repressive resources of the Stasi, which at one point employed 2% of the entire eastern population. This means that they can’t police the politics of millions of people, and it is one of the hard limits on the number of moves in this game. They also can’t easily transition to hard authoritarianism, which is a totally different system requiring a different kind of elite. To the extent that Green politics threatens to cause wide-scale deindustrialisation and circumscribe economic comforts, the moves are limited further still. Without prosperity, bland consumerist Western regimes have very little appeal.
What the ruling parties could have done, is outsource the unpopular and destructive climate policies to the European Union, which is the approach most other countries have opted for. They could have been open about the obviously NATO-coordinated attack on Nord Stream, done everything in their power to keep Russian gas flowing, put the ruinous Gebäudeenergiegesetz in the trash, and focussed on keeping the German economy out of recession. Meanwhile, the CDU/CSU could have adopted AfD positions, including an overt NATO scepticism. This strategic moderation would have been better for the people in charge and made them vastly more dangerous. Instead, just as we saw with the insane mass vaccination programme, they’ve created massive political opposition almost from nothing. From their perspective, this is a bad thing.
A common retort is that Germans will be too docile and atomised to resist. I think it’s a mistake to place too much credence in the mythology of the street protest, but I think this is also a misunderstanding of our political moment. Each move in the game represents an escalation. Expecting destabilising opposition to materialise in advance of this escalation is a mistake. It’s possible, of course, that after exhausting all of its moves, the ruling elite will remain at the helm and the populist opposition will be finally contained. The system to emerge from this process would however be weakened in substantial ways, and considerably more brittle and less flexible than the one which governs us today.