Pluralist Europe

Across borders, or how to counter right-wing and authoritarian populists.

18. August 2020
Magazine > Voices > Pluralist Europe

Towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the problem of global inequality is increasingly at the epicentre of studies of political processes across the globe. This phenomenon is associated with the neoliberal globalisation of the past 25 years. In the current democratic European and North American space, this problem has yet another aspect — right-wing populism.

Although the fears of its victorious march through the EU on the eve of the elections to the European Parliament did not materialise, right-wing populists have indeed strengthened their positions, but more importantly, have convincingly consolidated their presence in the field of institutional politics.[1] This new European reality is not at all new for Belarus — the populist president has been single-handedly ruling the country for 24 years. And although the context of this particular authoritarian populism is different and can be identified in terms of state paternalism (and not global market neoliberalism), it is linked with right-wing populism through the moralised form of anti-pluralism.

Jan-Werner Müller reflects on this phenomenon in his book on populism. This common core of right-wing and authoritarian populism today reveals that it is precisely pluralism — the “commitment to try to find fair terms of sharing the same political space with others whom we respect as free and equal but also as irreducibly different in their identities and interests.”[2] — that happens be the main challenge for the contemporary world both connected and divided by globalisation.

Between old and new forms of discrimination

In this new context, pluralism can hardly be reduced to the question of values, or rather, to the discourse on values outside the realms of economy and politics. The ‘other people’ that Müller mentions are no longer only refugees and migrants from Arab countries, but also representatives of different generations, social groups or genders.

In his widely quoted book on global inequality, Branko Milanović indicates that if in the second half of the 20th century the main form of inequality was inequality between countries, during the early part of the 21st century internal inequality took its place, bringing us back to the picture of the world as described by Karl Marx.[3] It is precisely the economic inequality that is increasingly seen today as a key driving force for AfD supporters in Germany, while the economic crisis and the erosion of the welfare state were among the top threats to Europe on the eve of elections to the European Parliament.[4]

However, it is important to keep in mind that economic inequality, which even in democratic countries can take form of an erosion of the middle class, no longer exists in its pure form and is accompanied by a number of aggravating transformations. One of these transformations concerns gender. The processes of emancipation, which gave impetus to the formation of a welfare state in the 20th century, led to a weakening of the symbolic role of the father, who ended up losing his monopoly on the role of sole breadwinner. The deteriorating economic situation (also affected by the arrival of the service sector in place of production) hardly contributes to the search for and formation of new, progressive symbolic patterns. That is especially true if society continues to uphold (at the level of mass culture and in the spheres of care and domestic work) stereotypes and behavioural patterns that are at odds with processes of female emancipation.

© Ralf Hirschberger / dpa /
"Contemporary cultural models should not be in conflict with the values and principles springing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the agreements based on it." Photo: © Ralf Hirschberger / dpa /

We can draw the conclusion that European societies today are at a crossroads of numerous transformations requiring radicalisation of issues and agendas, springing from the 1970s (in anticipation of globalisation) and related to new forms of social state and social policy, gender equality and further trajectories of emancipation. And although they are formulated in new, different conditions that are no longer affected only by globalisation and migration, but also by climate change and by the new nationalist aspirations that came after the year 2015 — there is, at times, a feeling of déjà vu about the fact that such phenomena are still possible at the beginning of the 21st century as a justification of economic superiority, social hierarchies, or sexism.

We can draw the conclusion that European societies today are at a crossroads of numerous transformations requiring radicalisation of issues and agendas, springing from the 1970s (in anticipation of globalisation) and related to new forms of social state and social policy, gender equality and further trajectories of emancipation.

However, the most popular response offered today as a solution to the aforementioned problems is not a criticism of social inequality and the various forms of discrimination within the globalised European space itself, but identity politics. It seems to throw European societies back to the time before the emergence of the welfare state — to forms of existence that were regulated not on the basis of social solidarity, but on the basis of the justification and consolidation of various privileges. Longing for those privileges happens to be at the centre of the new–old identity politics today.

Other Europe and others within Europe

This tendency is especially pronounced in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. For the citizens of these countries, religiosity is important as a way of understanding their national identity (while in Western Europe religiosity is in decline). There is a direct correlation between religiosity and refusing women the right to their own body, the right to abortion and the general right to same–sex marriage.[5] From a Belarusian perspective, the growth of religiosity can be seen as due to the lack of serious, well-founded public discussions on all kinds of moral issues. They are practically absent from the Belarusian education system and media, while this state of affairs is supported and utilised by the authoritarian state to control public opinion.

Whose Europe?

The “New Europe” and controversy around the European idea

Who belongs to Europe? And when we say “Europe”, what exactly do we mean? Such questions are the subject of controversy all over Europe and beyond. The idea of Europe as a community and the European Union as a supranational and intergovernmental community of states have so far been, and still remain, important frames of reference.

In collaboration with local stakeholders from the Eastern Partnership countries, as well as with partners from the Central Europe Project, Whose Europe? identified and devised various forms of interaction at the local, national, and European levels, specifying their effects and then publishing the outcomes. This makes them accessible throughout Europe and beyond but also puts them up for review in their original local contexts.

The project “Whose Europe?” consisted of a conference in Yerevan, local Interventions in Chișinău, Kiev, Minsk, Tbilisi and Yerevan, as well as an exhibition, a discussion in Berlin and this publication. The project was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office as part of the “Eastern Partnerships” programme.

The need for such discussions, in turn, is due to a sense of economic and social insecurity, the vulnerability of living in one’s own country with an eroding social state and power structures outside of the citizens’ control. As a consequence, moral discourse in Belarus, as well as in the neighbouring European countries, is easily colonised by the church. This applies even to the quasi-believers, who are in the majority in Belarus and were given the characterisation ‘Orthodox atheists’ — that is, those who attend churches only on religious holidays while being superstitious and believing in horoscopes.

However, when it comes to the ‘Muslim threat’, the right-wing populists in Western Europe love to speculate on the idea of ‘Christian Europe’. As is the case in Central and Eastern European countries, this approach is about replacing problems with concepts — instead of analysing the conditions, including economic conditions[6], that makes it difficult for various communities and members of society to integrate, it proposes to strengthen the very things that divide ‘us’ and ‘them’. Neo–nationalistic rhetoric gives rise to more and more ‘Others’, which include traditionally divided groups; men against women or Catholics against Jews; as well as the newly constructed ones related to migration or a different interpretation of sexuality.

New societies of solidarity across borders

To summarise, social justice-related pluralism in contemporary European societies must be affirmed along many lines simultaneously, taking the economic situation and social status equally into account. This means that the disadvantaged position of certain people and groups should receive its own examination and be subjected to identification of conditions that will make it possible to see globalisation as a multidimensional phenomenon, used in their own interests by very different players and for very different purposes.

However, in order to recognise some of these purposes as unacceptable, it is necessary to return to the principles and values resulting from social reorganisation of the world after World War II. The most important among them are egalitarianism and the criticism of privileges. In adherence to this principle, the social deprivation and humiliation, for example, of white men in the United States who have lost their prestigious jobs and social status (as Francis Fukuyama considered in his recent lecture)[7] cannot be ignored, but should be placed in the context of the struggle for a decent life and social recognition of all other people and groups.

The upholding of social equality in its open and debatable form, or equality without unification, can no longer be considered outside of the struggle for gender equality and women’s equality, which should not fall victim to the right of various communities to their cultural identity. This is clearly stated in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: women (and men) cannot become hostages of traditions and prejudices based on the idea of inferiority or superiority of one of the sexes.

Upholding those and other principles in the EU requires a critical look at culture as a whole. Different cultural models played and continue to play an important role in the lives of people and communities; however, that can hardly be the case when they take form of romanticised ideas about ‘life before the European Union’ or life before industrialisation and globalisation. This means that contemporary cultural models should not be in conflict with the values and principles springing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the agreements based on it.

This makes the question of structure and existence of the communities themselves one of the most important issues of the day – in other words, today the structure of communities itself must prevent them from turning into ghettos, i.e. should not allow their borders to become absolutely impenetrable and the principles of their organisation to become closed to discussion.[8]

Is it still possible to defend egalitarianism, solidarity, and adherence to human rights in a situation where EU borders are closed — as dreamt of by ultra-right leaders and politicians?

This leads to a key issue — the structure of the European community itself, or the European Union. Is it still possible to defend egalitarianism, solidarity, and adherence to human rights in a situation where EU borders are closed — as dreamt of by ultra-right leaders and politicians? All this in the situation of globalisation, that allows the privileged people and groups, including those from Europe, to continue enjoying the benefits of globalisation primarily for their own economic interests; and with a situation of war in Ukraine, whose citizens have clearly expressed their pro-European choice and require the full support of their European partners.

Hannah Arendt, one of the philosophers most cited at the beginning of the 21st century, arrived at an observation while considering the refugees in the period between the First and Second World Wars: she writes that there simply wasn’t a place they “could land without facing the strictest restrictions.” She concludes, ‘it had almost nothing to do with the material problems of overpopulation. The problem was not in spatial, but in political organisation.’[9] I am convinced that the fate of the European project, both at the level of individual European countries and the EU as a whole, depends on the solution to this problem. If that is achieved, the European project can become the counterpart to the visions of the future of Europe propagated by right-wing and authoritarian populists.

[1] See article: Ivan Krastev, The Far Right Is Here to Stay. And other lessons from the European Parliament elections, The New York Times, (28 May 2019) [accessed May 2019]

[2] Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?, (Penguin books, 2017). p.82

[3] Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016) pp.118-154

[4] See article: Ivan Krastev, Mark Leonard & Susi Dennison, What Europeans really want: five myths debunked, European Council of Foreign Relations, (April 2019) [accessed May 2019]

[5] See article: Eastern and Western Europeans Differ on Importance of Religion, Views of Minorities, and Key Social Issues, Pew Research Center (29 October 2018) [accessed May 2019]

[6] Nowadays discrimination on the labour market on ethnic and other grounds is still a prevalent topic in the EU. See article: No progress in curbing racial discrimination in the European labour market — in particular for women of colour, ENAR (Brussels, 21 March 2018) [accessed May 2019]

[7] Francis Fukuyama, The new identity politics. Rightwing populism and the demand for dignity, Eurozine and Identity politics: The demand for dignity and the nation state’s future, ERSTE Foundation (Lecture, 18 April 2019 [accessed May 2019]

[8] I reflect on this in more detail in my book, Community-after-Holocaust: on the way to inclusion in society (Minsk: Eclab Books, 2018)

[9] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1996 ed.) p.393

First published in October 2019 in the publication “Whose Europe?
Translation by David Cross, proofreading by Nika Kupyrova.

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