Klaus Dörre: “A Right-Wing Labour Movement? Causes of an Imaginary Revolt”

The 13th Annual Nicos Poulantzas Memorial Lecture, titled “A Right-Wing Labour Movement? Causes of an imaginary revolt”, was delivered on December 9th 2019 in Athens by the Professor of Sociology at the University of Iena, Klaus Dörre, and was attended by a large audience of leftists as well as progressive academics, students etc.

Addressing a topic directly related to the current challenges faced by the Left world-wide, given the alarming rise of right-wing forces, Prof. Dörre gave a very interesting and thorough analysis of the bases of this phenomenon, and more specifically the fact that most radical right-wing parties “quite clearly enjoy particularly high levels of support from the working classes” [1].

Drawing from electoral data, as well as the results of empirical research, Prof. Dörre presented the causes and driving forces of the current right-wing revolt, building on the notion of Bonapartist Democracy. More specifically, he referred to the tendency of “parts of the dominated classes – primarily male workers – to delegate the representation of their interests to individuals and parties who promise above all else peace, order, stability and security – besides preserving or even improving their social status”.

After presenting extremely interesting and even sometimes shocking extracts from interviews with German right-wing workers and trade-unionists, Prof. Dörre referred to the dual structure of everyday consciousness. He underlined that “motives that lead to right-wing populist orientations can derive both from the perception of class-specific inequalities”  –which are related to “the consequences of a takeover by financial capitalism” and give rise to “a nationalistic causal mechanism of self-elevation via the devaluation of others” (the non-Germans)– “and from criticism of markets and alienation”, in which case “unequal standards of valuation are associated with the destruction of community life” and are subsequently transformed into “criticism of migration” and used to construct “a cultural antagonism”. According to Prof. Dörre, the complex of socio-economic, cultural and political motives of the right-wing populist revolt – drawing from both Marxian class-based and Polanyian class-unspecific movement ideal-types – can be summarised under the term “loss of control”, against which there is an appeal to the state for action and protection from inequality, injustice and loss of community.

Prof. Dörre also analysed the notion of Bonapartist Democracy, in which “the increase in class-specific inequalities can become a driving force of right-wing popular revolt”. The Bonapartist Democracy is a result of a demobilisation of wage-dependent classes and, as he pointed out, it is related to the weakness of trade unions and political organisations operating on the axis of wage labour and capital, the economic structural change and the precarisation of labour. As he said, the Marxian concept of Bonapartism illustrates that “contradictory class interests only manifest as politics when they find adequate representation and are translated into hegemonic projects”. In this context, right-wing populism takes advantage, on the one hand, of the voluntary absence of the centre-left parties from the field of progressive class politics and, on the other hand, of the difficulty in organising underclasses and precariously employed wage earners in unions and political parties and succeeds in organising even unionised workers “in a social bloc intent on nothing less than top-down redistribution”.

Following Didier Eribon’s idea that “class relations have an effect even when they no longer feature in public discourse and everyday consciousness”, Prof. Dörre referred to conflictual democracy, pointing out that since “the everyday consciousness of dominated classes lacks orientations that could produce mobilised collectives, class relations operate in the mode of competition, as a result of a permanent separation into winners and losers, and by means of collective evaluations and devaluations”. Given the considerable influence of the state on the class structure, through the allocation and curtailment of social property, Prof. Dörre underlined the fact that this nowadays promotes a class formation by stigmatisation of large social groups and it is thus insufficient to just call for social cohesion based on commonality of values.

Instead, as a response to the right-wing populist revolt, Prof. Dörre proposed the rediscovery of conflict, dispute and regulated class struggle as forms of democratic socialisation, using a class-concept that combines purely economic interests with questions of social recognition and helps us understand the class-specific plurality of social questions. As he said, there is a specific class experience in the basis of the right-wing populism; however this succeeds to create cultural bonds because of the “lack of a mobilising, democratically inclusive class politics” on the part of the Left. Based on this, he rejected the idea of left-wing populism, proposing instead “a democratic class politics” that “has no need to locate antagonisms merely in the political arena and to justify them with the help of a friend-enemy scheme inspired by Carl Schmitt”. As he concluded, the Left cannot rely on a left-wing Bonapartism and it should work on a credible vision of a better – socialist – society.

* The video of the full lecture of Professor Klaus Dörre is available online here: https://vimeo.com/383792940. The text of the lecture will soon be published in Greek and in English by Nicos Poulantzas Institute.

[1] All quotes in the present report come from Prof. Dörre’s speech.