Norwegian Lessons

Revolting Cultures— elite behaviour, cultural conservatism and political violence

Beyond the first reactions of shock and horror – both of which deserve to linger somewhat before the next set of headlines captures our attention – the horrific events that took place in Norway last week have triggered an array of conversations regarding the killer’s motivations and his cited inspirations. These are legitimate questions–they are the ones we ask after each mass killing, from Mcveigh to Columbine.

In the case of Breivik, many feel that they have, quite literally, a smoking gun: a 1500 page ‘manifesto’ of extremist rantings penned by the killer himself and proof of his ongoing flirtation with some of Europe’s most radical and racist groups. These two facts seem to offer a convincing explanation (not to mention fodder for manipulative political operators–of every hue).

Yet my sense is that we need to take this sad and unwelcome opportunity to delve a little deeper in Breivik’s motivations and draw some conclusions about the state of our Western polities. Extremist rhetoric has a part to play in this drama, but this isn’t the whole story or even the most useful part of the story.

Breivik is a disturbed individual:  if extremist and anti-Muslim rhetoric had not furnished him with a repertoire of choice, then something else would no doubt have done so.  And the manifesto displays clear signs of paranoia amongst other psychological traits.  But this same manifesto also clearly marks him out as an individual, if not affiliated (such paranoia doesn’t leave much room for the trust that affiliation demands), then certainly supportive of a number of movements that privilege and defend white, uniformly Christian societies.

So, is this the work of a psychopath or the manifestation of a resurgence of the extreme right?

Extremist rhetoric, populist opportunism and fascist nostalgia

My sense is that it not quite either of these—some of the repertoire is distinctly of the extreme right (some of his cited inspiration certainly is), and Breivik is by no means a well-balanced person—calculation and organisation are no proof of mental stability.  But his words and actions strike me essentially as a violent revolt against elites.

The truth therefore lies somewhere  in the complex relationship between Breivik’s  perception of his cultural and political landscape coupled with his sense of powerlessness within it—indeed his sense of individual and collective victimhood – on the one hand;  and the opening up of a vast space for alienation and violence through the populist exploitation of the growing distance between the top and the bottom echelons of our societies.

Focusing exclusively on the extreme right, on Breivik’s cited heroes and his affiliations fails to deliver a proper explanation:  Even if one discards the killer’s psychopathic tendencies, his was an act aimed not at the Islam he hates, but at the betraying elite (and offspring thereof) who he accuses of conspiring against Norway’s pure culture.

What is most striking about Breivik, his violence aside, is that he is more of a mix of radical nostalgic conservatism and populism, than emblematic of the contemporary extreme right. In fact what he is closest to is the haunting and dysfunctional voice of the German Conservative Revolution of the immediate post-WWI years.

Outraged by liberalism and by commercial culture, disdainful and despairing of elites who were perceived as having sold out to both after the horror and sacrifices of the Great War the German Conservatives spoke of nations as pure, organic entities and called on others to mobilise and defend their unique ‘volkishness’. For some of its most vocal proponents, a nihilism that often led to doomed and violent heroism was a defining feature.

While linked to the rise of fascism in Europe, the Conservative Revolution’s main proponents were later shunned and persecuted by the Nazi regime—they were deemed too alienated, too culturally conservative, too averse to notions of progress and order, all of which are the true hallmarks of the extreme right; whereas fascism hovers, as many have pointed out, between Left and Right—somewhere between romantic, populist fantasy, radical nostalgia and cathartic violence.

Breivik’s manifesto smacks of populism with its hatred of elites, its suspicion of government and of internationalism, and of fascism in its purest, most culturally rooted form with its references to purification, renewal, rebirth and organic, legitimate orders.

Most of all, it speaks to a form of alienation and marginalization which is a product of our polarized societies:  the result of populism’s work in the political sphere, of a media in thrall to this polarized and confrontational mode of exchange and of the latter’s increasing subservience to financial interests.

Breivik does blame the immigrant, the ‘other’ – in this case, the Muslim – but those who really bear the brunt of his wrath are the elites who have let this happen, conspiratorially, against the little people.  Because, for Breivik, as for many populists, elites are defined by their own culture that trumps any allegiance to the national interest. This betrayal by elites is the defining feature of populism, and it is the defining motivation behind  Breivik’s act of violence.

Those who really bear the brunt of his wrath are the elites who have let this happen, conspiratorially, against the little people.

Populism and the elite game

Populism is good at sniffing out the games that elites play—its genius lies in depicting these games as both sinister and cynical: the calculated abuse of ordinary people by a technocratic, liberal, internationalist elite. It is an incubator of conspiracy theories such as the ones in evidence in Breivik’s writings.  In cultures based on transparency and a radical egalitarianism, such as the Nordic countries, it can thrive since the feeling of betrayal, when it surfaces, is even more acute in the context of the national rhetoric.

It is worth noting, without drawing too direct a causal relationship (and without in the least justifying any aspect of Breivik’s murderous acts), that the attack in Norway happened against a particular backdrop of international headlines that are grist to the populist mill:  in quick succession we saw a global political figure and potential French president mired in an international sex scandal, a giant media group and the higher echelons of UK law enforcement  revealed to be behaving as if they were above the law, and a Greek bail-out which – for all its good political sense – is, in democratic terms, incomprehensible to the average European tax-payer.

The space left open by the distention of the ties between those who rule and those who don’t is exploited by populists—and their work is to turn a crack in the democratic edifice into a vast crevasse.  But the crack is nevertheless in part created by sections of that very elite whose actions time and time again – and with increasing frequency over the past few years – seem to validate the populist belief that no matter what your democratic institutions might symbolise, there is another system at play; one in which ordinary rules or laws don’t apply.

The space is therefore gradually being filled by populist parties whose only aim is to exploit, maintain and widen this gulf in order to swell their own ranks.  These  attract a portion of mainstream but culturally conservative voters who find their diffuse worries echoed in the words of Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders.

And more occasionally, and infinitely more tragically, they sometimes succeed in creating the impression of a gulf so unbridgeable and a sense of powerlessness and exclusion so acute, that the most vulnerable, disturbed and alienated will see nothing wrong with attempting to destroy those who they perceive as the hallmarks of conspiracy against the nation.  To understand Breivik’s actions it is important to put him in this context and in this latter category.  But it is also important to ask ourselves what we do about political cultures so given to polarisation.

It is in this sense that what we should be worried about the major effects of our cultural dynamics on our political and security landscapes.  The risk is profoundly cultural; in the sense that it is shaped by political culture  –  a set of values, habits, conventions, comportments, exchanges, narratives – itself defined by polarization and a total absence of communication beyond confrontational headlines.  All of which can leave people feeling uncertain, distrustful of professional politics and politicians, as well voiceless, helpless and excluded.

These are the dynamics that underpin the threat or the actual perpetrating of violence; far more than the surface references to Melanie Philips or to radical grouplets.

The final question to ask therefore (about Norway, but also about other countries in Europe and many other parts of the Western world) is what can be done about such levels of polarization.

Research on populism points to a central paradox which appears to be particularly relevant in the case of many Nordic countries.  It refers to a kind of consensual, elite politics that can contribute to the feeling a) that decisions are made by remote, faceless technocrats whose interest is increasingly shaped by their position as members of an elite rather than by national considerations; b) that this consensus can come at the expense of the expression of national, cultural traits that have been subsumed to a superficial technocratic or policy logic.

As noted, it is a paradox and goes against the received image of Norway and other small, progressive, Northern European nations, but it is clear that in times of transition and uncertainty, the imposition, or even the search for, or maintenance of consensus can appear to be a white-wash.  A way of obliterating debate or disagreement.  In the case of the Nordic countries, that consensus may have to yield a little in order to create a space for robust deliberation and even dissent.  But the latter need the right institutions to channel them.

It is perhaps also worth delving below Norway’s international image–beyond the wealth and the consensus, Norway also offers a contrasting image of a country on the edge of Europe, more uncertain of its identity and whose sophisticated but consensus-focused institutions are not necessarily geared to accommodate the kind of multi-stranded debates that are appropriate in an interdependent world of diversity. The sense of threat created by a multicultural Europe on its doorstep is significant.

In this respect, while no such tragic events have happened in Finland, the rise of the True Finns in the last election is a related phenomenon—or, rather, a symptom of the perception of an emerging gap between the elite and the ‘true’ Finns—in yet another place where the national rhetoric is one of egalitarianism, transparency and equality of access.

Though this tragedy is first and foremost a collective moment of sorrow and solidarity for Norway, we know that we must take this as a wake up call for the rest of our European societies, and many others across the world.  Not because the extreme right is on our doorstep, but because such atrocities are emblematic of societies where the (financial, political, social, entitlement, values) gap between those who rule and those who bear that rule has become democratically unmanageable.

This is not the gap between ‘communities’, nor is it the gap between religions, or languages, this is the gap between the privileged and the dispossessed.  If we don’t address it, populist agitators will continue to do so to the detriment of our institutions and of our capacity to relate to each other in ways that don’t create a terrain for the truly marginal to turn to violence.

Catherine Fieschi, 2011


Catherine Fieschi


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