Affective politics of the far right beyond negative emotions

Julia Leser & Florian Spissinger

Chairman of far-right AfD party parliamentary group in Thuringia Bjoern Hoecke speaks during a demonstration of the anti-immigrant Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident), on February 17, 2020 in Dresden, eastern Germany. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

In Germany, right-wing terror is on the rise. In the past years, events such as the 2016 mass shooting in a Munich shopping mall, the knife attack on politician Henriette Reker in 2015, the murder of Walter Lübcke and the attack of a synagogue in Halle in 2019, and the most recent terror attack in Hanau in February 2020 have left the country reeling. In light of these events, a wide range of liberal to conservative politicians and observers have issued public statements that condemn sentiments of hatred that are thought of as motivating these violent crimes. ‘Hate is a poison that… is responsible for far too many crimes,’ said chancellor Angela Merkel after the Hanau shooting.  Others have explicitly accused the far-right populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) of fueling hate that would lead to an increase in right-wing violence. The AfD should be considered ‘the political arm of hate,’ said Green party member Cem Özdemir in a recent interview, while AfD politicians have been vehemently protesting the accusations and denying any connections between their politics, the dissemination of hate and the rise in terror attacks in Germany.

The idea of hatred as a central factor in fueling the rise of right-wing terror seems plausible at first. The simplicity of this explanation for such a complex phenomenon might be attractive, but on a closer look, it raises more questions than answers. Can a sentiment be responsible for an act of terror? Is it solely hatred that operates in far-right politics? Is hatred more than a cipher for anti-Muslim racism? Kenan Malik has written in the Guardian that it is ‘not a general problem of “hatred” but the specific vilification of migrants and Muslims.‘ This raises the question of how far-right discourse, racism, sentiment and violence are interconnected. In other words, if we think of right-wing terrorists being motivated mainly by ‘irrational’ sentiments and delusions, we might miss the complexities of how far-right rhetoric and racism are increasingly normalized, how people are actually radicalized, and what these processes have to do with emotions. This invites us to rethink some of our assumptions about the role of negative emotions such as hatred in politics.

The far right in particular is perceived as an affective space that harnesses and amplifies a multiplicity of ‘negative’ emotions, among them not only hatred, but also fear, rage and anger.

Concerning the role of emotions in politics in general, it is quite common to frame emotions in negative terms as a manifestation of undesirable, irrational, illegitimate or even dangerous political conduct. In line with certain traditions of liberal political philosophy, ‘good’ politics is conceived as a realm that is guided by rationality and freed of emotions. Such normative thinking positions affects as ‘the other’ of rational politics and therefore considers them to be apolitical, alarming, or irrational. In this context, ascribing affectivity to a political adversary can operate as a mode of devaluation and delegitimisation. The far right in particular is perceived as an affective space that harnesses and amplifies a multiplicity of ‘negative’ emotions, among them not only hatred, but also fear, rage and anger. In light of the recent events in Germany, it becomes obvious that we continue to think of far-right agents as innately hateful. Yet ‘hateful’ is not something that people just are, and hate is not something that people simply do. In this regard, Sara Ahmed has argued in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014) that no object is innately hateful, as affects are not private properties of particular individuals. Rather, a social object has to be made ‘hateful’ through the circulation of affects. This is also true for those who are deemed to be fueling hate, as they are themselves objects of affective ascriptions in rational discourse. As Kathleen Blee has demonstrated in her work Understanding Racist Activism (2018), hate rather needs to be considered as a relational and socially constructed phenomenon that can operate in the realm of politics in different ways.

In our ethnographic research on the far-right populist party AfD in Germany, we were less interested in identifying the negative affects that characterize their politics, and more interested in what affects can or are able to do, for whom, how and why – an approach that is inspired by the works of Nitzan Shoshan (The Management of Hate, 2016), Kathleen Blee (Understanding Racist Activism, 2018) and Hilary Pilkington (Loud and Proud: Passion and Politics in the English Defence League, 2016). At the beginning of our ethnographic research, we were surprised about the fact that neither the AfD events that we attended nor our conversations with AfD-affiliated persons were characterized by open articulations of hatred towards those who would be considered non-German. In this regard, Shoshan (2016) and Blee (2018) have argued that hatred in far-right politics operates as a pejorative classification that impacts those who are classified as ‘hateful’. In our research, hate was a feeling that members and supporters of the AfD refrained from expressing explicitly.

According to Blee (2018: 69), all emotions are ‘socially and politically encouraged (or forbidden)’ to some extent. Following Arlie Russell Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land 2016: 15), political realms are governed by ‘feeling rules’ that dictate how one should feel about particular political and social issues. In many contexts, expressions of hatred are socially sanctioned or at least discouraged, which indicates a social disagreeability of particular affective expressions. In this regard, far-right political agents tend to disguise and mitigate their rhetoric of exclusion and use more appropriate and legitimate forms to express far-right attitudes. Emotions are never only personal, subjective or intimate, as they are always political. The act of performing emotions in the political realm is inextricably related to their legitimacy. Based on our observations, the performance of legitimate political conduct was crucial for the AfD to transfer their messages to audiences and thus create a social space in which relations, identifications and attachments could emerge and flourish.

An election campaign poster of Germany’s AfD (Alternative for Germany) is seen in Hamburg, northern Germany, on February 12, 2020. (Photo by Patrik Stollarz / AFP) (Photo by PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP via Getty Images)

In our Global Discourse article, ‘The functionality of affects: conceptualising far-right populist politics beyond negative emotions‘, we analyse in detail how far-right populist parties such as the AfD are actively working to provide appealing political narratives and identities as well as create spaces and opportunities for people to certify and affirm their beliefs by performing and practicing affects. In particular, we demonstrate how these efforts rely on the performance of irony and cynicism, of mockery and cheerfulness, and on creating atmospheres that are inviting and identifiable by sharing jokes and laughter. Hatred was a concept that all AfD politicians and supporters we talked to distanced themselves from. ‘We don’t stir up any hatred,’ they told us, or: ‘It is not us who hate, but the others.’ By ‘the others’ they referred to political opponents they felt delegitimized by, even insulted, discredited, and excluded. Both the distancing against ‘being hateful’ and the humorous good atmosphere performed at AfD gatherings can be interpreted as inherently related; both practices serve to create an appealing AfD community. Affects pervade narratives and practices, creating collective identities, separating groups from one another and putting them in order: ‘It is not us who hate, but the others.’. As Sara Ahmed (2014: 209) said, emotions do things.

A closer examination of the far right’s affective practices and performances could clarify how these agents render their political projects identifiable and appealing. To do so, we argue that instead of addressing their politics of negative emotions – such as hatred and fear – which classify their projects as illegitimate from the outset, we need to understand how they enact themselves as politically legitimate through affective practices that enable opposition to ascribed negativity. We are just beginning to understand the role of affects in politics in general, and in the rise of far-right politics across the globe in particular.

Julia Leser holds a PhD in Political Science (Leipzig University). Currently, Julia is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Leipzig University and affiliated with the BMBF-funded research project ‘Strangers in Their Own Land?’ (Leipzig University), the BMBF-funded research project ‘Beyond the Glass Ceiling’ (TU Darmstadt, HAWK Hildesheim/Holzminden/Göttingen), and the DFG-funded research project ‘Institutionalizing Human Trafficking: A French-German Comparison’ (Leipzig University). Julia’s research focuses on the politics of policing and the politics of affects, and further include national security and migration control, nationalism, populism, political ethnography and state theory.

Florian Spissinger holds a M.A. in Political Science (Leipzig University). Currently, Florian is a research associate at Leipzig University and affiliated with the BMBF-funded research project ‘Strangers in Their Own Land?’. He is a PhD student with a scholarship of Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Florian’s research focuses on the politics of affects, political ethnography, far-right discourse and nationalism, as well as studies on dis/-ability and inclusion.

For further reading from Volume 10:2, free to access in May-June 2020, try:

Guest editor Dan Degerman’s introduction to the volume

Anger fast and slow: mediations of justice and violence in the age of populism by Will Davies

‘We will march side by side and demand a bigger table’: anger as dignity claim by Karen Adkins

Green shame: the next moral revolution? by Martha Claeys

The resentment-ressentiment complex: a critique of liberal discourse by Sjoerd van Tuinen

Betrayed by the system: how the UK’s inadequate democratic system thwarts grown-up politics, and how we can begin to change this by Remco van der Stoep

and the full volume available here

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