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The Tough Stuff. “Populism,” “Political Correctness,” and the Like Diedrich Diederichsen

Even before the rise of the “alt-right,” conservatives have flouted the rules of what is often referred to as political correctness. The debate over who is radical and who follows the rules, however, has gained new currency in recent years with rise of social media and especially since the pandemic. In his text for issue #107, “The New New Left,” Diedrich Diederichsen – who addressed in his 1996 book “Political Corrections” what were then already described as “long overdue questions” – asks what could happen if political correctness truly did have the power that its critics ascribe to it. Looking ahead to our December issue on “Collectivity,” which addresses the relationship between art and activism and the self-understanding of artists working in and with collectives, we are republishing Diederichsen’s text here.

In late March, I was sitting in a storied gay and lesbian café in the heart of Berlin when I was forced to overhear three gentlemen, one table over, railing against populism. First, they ranted about “Schulzomania” and the “deranged” notion that “we” might have a fairness problem. Didn’t Europe have other things to worry about? They then turned to the “whining” about gentrification. There were obviously people who could afford to live in London despite the high rents – and anyway, people make more money there. But that’s populism for you – leftist populism, in this case, which is no better than the right-wing kind. The three went on to praise selected positions among the CDU party [1] and the FDP, observing that the former couldn’t be blamed for their homophobia – as Christian Democrats, they were, after all, a conservative party – but that the SPD were cowards for bowing to their conservative coalition partner rather than joining Die Grünen and Die Linke to enact “marriage for everyone.” One week later, “left-wing populist” had become Schulz’s standard moniker. By mid-April, the French presidential candidate Mélenchon was likewise universally called a “leftist populist” and said to be just as bad as the ballot’s right-wing populist.

1. Left-wing populism and pious intersectionality

This new distancing of oneself against “both left-wing and right-wing populism,” like its predecessor (the disavowal of “both left-wing and right-wing extremism”), serves a structurally right-ist depoliticization – one wherein the self-declared pragmatists who offer this double rejection claim an alternative middle position. Yet in doing so, the one true political difference that matters – that between left and right – is reduced to a distinction that’s prima facie apolitical (a distinction between populist and non-populist), which is to say a difference in the method of communication (an overly simple representation of a situation versus a description that is appropriately complex).

If one says, however, that all positions of the so-called right-wing populists must be identified as being right-wing positions and condemned as such, we need to understand why there are leftists who take such positions as well: homo- and transphobia among leftists who think LGBTQ is a middle-class luxury club, anti-semitism among traditional anti-imperialists. That’s why Third Position-style alliances exist – and are on the rise – especially now with a nationalist Left led by Mélenchon, Lafontaine, Wagenknecht, and many others for whom “the rights of women, of blacks, of sexual minorities and migrants or environmental issues are nothing more than egotistical concerns of the middle class, to be contrasted with the only relevant struggle, the social and economic one” (Didier Eribon). To define a non-rightist Left, we need a category of “leftist” thinking of the kind outlined by Étienne Balibar, one that dialectically combines social justice and equality, on the one hand, with “bourgeois” liberties, including minority rights, on the other: an “equaliberty.” Such a conception had been characteristic of the cultural revolution of ’68, from the anarchism of the student revolts (aiming to build a coalition between the working class and students) to the social-liberal coalitions around the world in which, for a brief moment, the civil-rights liberalism of the more progressive faction of the bourgeoisie converged with social democracy (Brandt, Allende, Palme, et al.). Only with this historical background in mind can we frame an effective negative definition of the category “rightist”: anti-socialist and anti-liberal, ethno-nationalist and authoritarian, culturally monistic and anti-genderist. In the politicized art world, however, such thinking is usually articulated as a form of idealism and apolitical moralizing; people simply assume that, say, LGBTQ communities and anti- or de-colonial struggles are always in concert and that intersectionality is merely a question of good faith and “mindfulness.” Whoever sides with those fighting the good fight is good, too. In reality, queers around the world are being hunted, tortured, and murdered in the name of anti-colonial arguments. For the pious intersectionality in which so much art-leftist writing is steeped to become unpious and politically effective, it needs to be clear that it’s not evil people that are its antagonists but the ideological-institutionalized forces that form their tendencies.

All images: Stefanie Pretnar, from the series “Frankfurt Classic,” 2009-14

We get closer to the heart of the problem if we credit the concept of “populism” with more substance than it usually has: not as an (insufficiently complex) method (form) of propaganda (which can veer leftward as well as rightward) but as a (rightist) ideology that revolves around the concept of the people. Seen from this angle, populism is a thriving version of neo-traditionalism, an ideological formation caused by neoliberalism. Wherever models of progress and democracy rooted in Enlightenment traditions – socialism, social democracy, the social market economy, the welfare state – were dismantled by neoliberalism (or failed for immanent reasons), whether as it played out more or less gently in Germany and northern Europe, or with apparent brute force, as it has in the Mediterranean, the Arab world, parts of Latin America, or the United States, the last thirty or forty years have seen the emergence of a new phenomenon: the return to an invented or artificially unearthed traditional ideology that, as ideologies are wont to do, opposes not the agent of disempowerment, economic neoliberalism, but the civil liberties and other accomplishments that the beneficiaries of neoliberalism still enjoy, albeit in the disfigured form of privileges. Among these neo-traditionalisms are movements as diverse as political Islam; Evangelicalism in South America and in general the Christian Right in North America; the machismo that pervades hip-hop (otherwise maybe the most important medium of global communication); but also xenophobic and racist parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Front National, and authoritarian para-fascist charismatics such as Erdogan, Orbán, and Trump. Populism is the form of neo-traditionalism that most closely resembles conventional party politics.

Neo-traditionalism combines this invocation of the people (in an ethnicist and/or culturalist sense as “Volk ”) with identity politics, which was structurally unconcerned with traditions, a minoritarian politics that evolved out of the leftist, anti-racist and feminist, anti-homo- and -transphobic struggles: its original move was in fact to invent other collectivities counter to tradition. Over time, however, there have been numerous instances of overlap with neo-traditional positions, partly facilitated by the fact that neo-traditionalism, unlike earlier strands of conservative and reactionary politics, is quite up to date in its operation on the institutional and infrastructural levels. This is where we get to the tough stuff.

We used to make do with the formula that identity politics is okay for strategic reasons when excluded groups resort to it (“strategic essentialism”) but potentially fascistic when the privileged do the same. From today’s perspective, I would instead draw a discourse-political distinction between an identity-political insistence on competence, which contributes to a broadening of the discourse, allowing voices and knowledge to be heard that had been silent, and those instances wherein identity is used as an argument to buttress the adamant insistence that, qua identity, someone knows better about something than those who are not directly impacted by it. The latter, I would argue, should be rejected; those who are (have hitherto been) excluded always have a legitimate claim to an enhanced right to speak, but not a right to be right in a way that leaves others with no option but agnosticism. Given the fact that this complex is bound up with both identity politics and the discursive politics usually dismissed as political correctness, this would also be an angle from which to address the question of the difference between the legitimacy of the appeal to “competence” or “membership in the impacted group” (in most instances, a concrete minority) and the grandiloquent invocation of the idea of a “people,” which is an imaginary monstrosity. The invocation of the “people” restricts the number of legitimate discourses, while the invocation of a minority and its non-identity with the people increases their number.

One of the very few smart contributions on the subject reminds us that no one has ever espoused political correctness as a substantial political goal: the label is nothing more than a term of abuse liberally bandied about by the other side because it can be slapped on anything. Leave it to Josef Joffe, in a retort (also published in Die Zeit ), to come up with a startlingly dumb example of PC’s substantive hegemony: he complains that the policy platform adopted by the coalition of SPD, Die Grünen, and Die Linke that currently governs Berlin mentions LGBT rights but not even once the word “Christian” – as though Berlin stood as some kind of example of the hegemony of political correctness (vilified here, as usual, for imposing formal linguistic strictures); as if there were some kind of programmatic connection between political correctness and the substantive policies (though which ones?) pursued by the LGBTQ community. But it’s precisely because Joffe misses the point of his chosen topic with such bravura that his essay prompts the question: What might a “PC politics” look like were this slur to be inverted (this apparent worst enemy of today’s successful right-wing politicians) and, as they have done with “populism,” treated “political correctness” as a positive and substantive concept?

My proposal would be a discursive politics that, while it would not in itself realize an unpious-political intersectionality, would create the conditions for it. The covenants proposed by political correctness are intended to guarantee that the polyphony and heterogeneity that theory asks for are indeed realized in real-world communicative settings; and these would certainly be part of the debate, as it were, complementing and extending purely formal discursive rules with the acknowledgment that access to power and the power to speak are still unequally distributed. Speaking rights and discursive access would need to be allocated so as to ensure that those who have not participated in the past can speak up: the status quo of an ostensibly “natural” board of straight-talkers must be identified, opened to criticism as the product of a hegemonic privilege of the powerful. This would (and, in many corners of the academic as well as art discourse, does) result in an enlargement of the number of speakers and an enlargement of the range of their backgrounds – in other words, it’s not the discursive narrowing PC is always accused of (“Can’t say this, can’t say that!”) but a discursive expansion. On the other hand, PC regulations must prove their worth by actually leading to a sustained pluralization of the discourse.

But what happens to the political in political correctness? Because the goal is not merely to fetishize countable diversity but to politicize it: it’s not just a compensatory preference and support for formerly excluded voices (for whichever reasons and in whichever ways they were excluded) that’s supposed to be crucial, but an appreciation of the specific knowledge bound up with the particular form of disadvantage, discrimination, exclusion, or worse (such as persecution), that has left its mark on the speaker’s own life or that of someone he or she is close to.

Needless to say, this stipulation also opens the door to a certain essentialism that resembles that of populism, even if the latter’s neo-traditional invocation of the people actually devalues real experience. The discourse of personal involvement and the claim that only those personally impacted by a given issue have the authority to speak – see the debates that recently flared up over cultural appropriation and Dana Schutz’s painting – accomplishes the opposite of discursive expansion: competence to speak is narrowly tied to a concrete cultural or other trait conceived as a political characteristic. Lately, however, the charge of essentialism has been used as a club against people who were merely a little annoyed by instances of white-colonial carelessness, these unsolicited, impertinent expressions of solidarity from well-heeled bourgeois figures of public empathy, who have a way of declaring themselves responsible for the suffering of others. Still, even if some essentialisms have outlasted their strategic purpose and are therefore questionable simply because they stem from this or that idea that ontologizes the political, the decisive criterion remains the degree of validity a given contribution to the debate can claim. Two things are unacceptable: the pretension to have spoken the last word on a subject – that hysteria-inducing move typical of online debates – and the ad personam aggression (i.e., toward the individual rather than the ideology and its institutions) of the digital pillory. The perspectival framing and particularization of access in debates is not an end in itself; it must contribute to new abstractions and universalizations that (in order to save the world, if I dare say so) will need to replace the old Western (leftist) universalism.

2. Anti-authoritarian authoritarians/haterism

Just as “populism” is the strategic, false name for the new Right, the term used in the same discourse for the mass-psychological basis for populism’s rise is “hatred.” But hatred is actually the mix of emotional impulses that hasn’t yet a goal, one not yet directed against a group of persons that the individual, by dint of an ideological construction, blames for his or her situation. Hatred is a matter of personal proximity: people hate their neighbors, their significant others, the other driver in a car accident. Only in a next step is hatred converted into resentment. People used to give each other bloody noses at the pub every night or go home and smack the wife and kids around; now they “articulate” their resentment.

Resentment has been supplied with a new mass psychology, which appears in perhaps its purest form in the online comment. The source of this new resentment is not the mass in which people, together in the same space, rile each other up but the solitary wanker – more or less figuratively speaking – sitting at home in front of a simulator of the social. In the 1990s, before the notion of “social networks” was even in use, we used the concept of electronic loneliness. It implied that the premises of a fulfilling social life, from democracy to bohemianization – unexpected encounters leading to social concatenations in the public sphere – vanish when everyone finds all they need in the private electronic space (a 1990s catchphrase: bedroom producers), all they need to spread out and live in splendid isolation. Social media, however, proved the opposite; decentralized networking brought about encounters of the most unforeseeable kind, engendering new codes, attitudes, manners of speaking. Yet the dialectic of digital sociality is that it’s not tested, controlled, and confirmed through social relationships with their specific and complex mixture of unanimity and antagonism in each individual contact the way real-world sociality is, down to the round of regulars at the bar; rather, it’s cybernetically administrated by univalent acts of liking or disliking and the volume of hits.

In noting this dialectic, I’m not mounting a cultural critique that would have us reject social networks in favor of the piazza and the block party. Rather, I’m trying to draw attention to one factor that reinforces the new political situation: the prevalence of univalent, disembodied claims being sent and received by individuals who are upset but unconnected to other bodies; these isolated users firing off (electronic) messages, their asocial fury slowly but inexorably amplified by affirmation until it blooms into resentment – a resentment that’s rightist (racist, sexist) but, in the hate-filled individual’s mind and soul, feels autonomous and authentic (“Takes guts to say it like it is”), in contrast with the supposed logic-driven regularity that defines the authoritarian personality’s emotional life. This solitary resentment directed against non-present others and affirmed by other non-present others is the mass psychology of “emancipated fascism,” of anti-authoritarian authoritarianism, of obedience to what is no longer a human leader but instead a kind of programmed asocial gravity. Anonymous affirmation, results, hits are the flashes of an addiction that becomes a worldview. The habitus of insolent youthfulness mingles with programmed bots and small-time small-town Nazis to produce a tone that has indeed gone viral over the past five years, and that tone has an international ring to it. We must avoid even the semblance of sharing this aggression, however, if we still value ad personam critique for the classic materialist effects of gossip. Fundamental rule: steer clear of (moralistic) aggressions toward the individual. It’s always the institutions!

3. The state of affairs

That’s why, for example, raising a scandal when Zurich’s Theater in der Gessnerallee invited an AfD politician to participate in a debate (Hamburg’s Thalia Theater invited another AfD politician in their Nachtasyl bar, Burgtheater Vienna and Theater Magdeburg similar characters) was the right thing to do. Theaters, museums, alternative spaces, galleries, clubs, journals, websites are institutions. They have specific as well as generic histories. These histories have seen accomplishments summed up by phrases such as “where we stand,” “status quo,” “state of affairs.” And these histories obviously remain contested; there are obviously always both moments of progress as well as setbacks. Still, there’s a right to what’s been achieved that should be obligatory for an institution (theater or otherwise) with a certain reputation to uphold. We have nothing to discuss with the Right and therefore no reason to offer them a stage. That we need to study their successes in the perspectives of sociology, political science, media pathology is a different matter. Realistically, there is no point in trying to prescribe an advanced consciousness the rest of the world should in principle adopt as the mandatory basis of discussion; of course everyone has the right to produce and talk nonsense and to keep doing so. Institutions, however, should be bound by where they stand within a historic development; what their audience, their artists agree should be. When an institution starts trying to score points for being provocative by inviting some Gauleiter [2] from the AfD or, even worse, when they want to stage a serious exchange of arguments with their right-wing guest, what is there to be gained? As if there is any point in denouncing the individual moron they invite or the individual moron responsible for the invitation. A boycott then becomes a legitimate instrument. No further justification is required: no platform for the Right! No attention, no constant and redundant summoning of our anxieties, which merely gives the Right’s actions the resonance and validation they so eagerly seek.

Isn’t that also a kind of discursive narrowing? Discourses always labor under the pressure of having to come to a conclusion. If we define them as open, abruptly ending a conversation (which is often necessary) still feels like a starkly forceful, even if appropriate, intervention; the reason is extrinsic to the discourse (history, politics, looming deadlines, money). By contrast, utilizing the “state of affairs” as a working concept allows us to give some form of closure (which is practically and politically necessary) a less haphazard cast, while still retaining the possibility of further debate – for instance, by distinguishing obsolete conceptual tropes from those that remain operable. The situation-bound determination of that state for specific institutions (in light of their specific histories and the functions they serve for certain positions and cultural practices) is better than the linear and general determination of progress and setbacks on a global scale – it can take local asynchronisms and historical plurality into account – and is nonetheless not at the mercy of naïve or nasty curators and dramaturges and their speculative gambles for attention. After all, the compatibility of discursive opening and discourse-closing interventions has its largely uncontested place, and not just when it comes to the criminalization of Holocaust denial. It’s precisely because and when we want to promote a very high level of discursive participation that we need boundaries – which, needless to say, are debatable. But such boundaries must not be confused with the new positivistic love for facts that many people now appeal to in hopes of disposing of evil postmodernism and its so-called relativism, which supposedly paved the way for “fake facts.” Putting facts in perspective and being open about the various degrees of access (and the power differentials that determine them) was not at all an arbitrary relativism. On the contrary, it demonstrated that everything, far from being abstractly relative, can be put in – makes sense in – a concrete perspective. No one sought to do away with the incontestability of facts; the point was to draw attention to the political reality that facts have different effects and meanings for different people. In this way, critical and postmodern theories have rightly and very successfully dispatched the old obtuse positivism of facts. The people (in most senses, especially in the ethno-cultural sense of “Volk ”) however, is not a perspective; like positivism on the other side, it’s the denial of perspectives. Rightist positions cannot be salvaged by reframing them in ethno-nationalist perspectives – and besides, history’s verdict on them has since long been known.

Translation: Gerrit Jackson


[1]Editors’ note: CDU (Christian Democratic Party), the party to which Chancellor Merkel belongs; the FDP (Free Democratic Party), supporting economic liberalism; SPD (Social Democratic Party), Germany’s oldest existing party, and which has named Schulz as its candidate for chancellor in the country’s September elections; Die Grünen (the Green Party); and Die Linke (The Left Party).
[2]Editors’ note: Gauleiter being the term used for officiaries of the Nazi Party’s second-highest paramilitary rank.

All images: Stefanie Pretnar, from the series “Frankfurt Classic,” 2009-14