Make Them Suffer Too

On introducing idiocy as a political category of Austrian exceptionalism; or, why everything remains the same yet gets uglier by the minute.

The deed is done. The new coalition government of FPÖ[1]and ÖVP[2]has reunified Austria and Hungary in spirit: neoliberalism and fascism honeymooning. Police, military, and the secret services are answerable to the FPÖ, the deregulation agenda and upward redistribution are being taken on by the expert practitioners of the ÖVP. The tiny segment which in Austria can call itself the left is whining, with its customary blend of hubris and Catholicism, that it must have done something wrong to make 60 percent of the population vote against its own interests. The left-liberal segments of the middle class, meanwhile, feel confirmed in their conceited notion of the stupidity of the masses, a notion which is only wrong in one respect—that they themselves are any smarter. This is permanently disproved by their distorted vision, which conjures up emancipatory front lines running between idiot prole racists and worldly-wise consumers of culture, between heteronormative Dirndl-wearers and those with pierced tongues, between the un- and the half-educated. At least an escape into the typical Western European illusion that the neoliberal elites are a civilizing protection against right-wing barbarism, when in fact they are its real progenitors, is barred the left, for in Austria, those elites are at this very moment partying with the barbarians.

How a left-populist project turns out shit—and cannot but—with its aim of meeting Joe the plumber on his turf (and then failing to move him off it) has been demonstrated by the ex-green party politician Peter Pilz, who in his book “Homeland Austria,” stoked understanding for autochthonous women’s fear of groping foreigners, ‘ere he was swept from the political scene by the #MeToo campaign as a serial groper.

The time has come to look reality in its lunatic, jittery eye. The Austrian (and therefore folkloric) version of the million-dollar question isn’t so much why those left behind are voting right and neoliberal, but why those who haven’t yet been—in international comparison Austria still has a relatively intact social system—want to be left behind at all costs. Sebastian Kurz hasn’t exactly been cagey about his intention to introduce something akin to the German Hartz IV welfare reform in Austria and has campaigned openly on the entire panoply of such humiliations. The mandate for authoritarian neoliberalism is by no means payback for the liberal version of it, as the left, in light of Trump, Brexit, and AfD[3], likes to lie to itself in a desire to retain at least its wishful thinking about the still existing, though temporarily dormant, rationality of its proletarian petite bourgeoisie.

The Austrian truth is crass, simple, and unbearable. The offer made the little guy & gal by the powers now reigning was something like this: We supply you with national pride, identification with spiffy goons and clear-skinned preppies, and a feeling of liberation when the tough guys drain the swamp. And then we will hurt you, even hurt you badly. But by laying hands on you we stay in bodily contact and remain a tight-knit family. And here is a little treat: We will hurt the others, the scum, the foreigners, the Muslims, the eggheads, the artists, and the welfare moochers twice as much as you…deal? And the people cheered.


The Great Taboo


Conceding that the plebeian and petty bourgeois masses are irrational is the usual hauteur by which the liberal elites as a class cement their claim to leadership. Even in countercultural realms, this democratic majority is disdained by virtue of claiming moral superiority over it. This is most evident in the compulsive need of middle class hipster kids to show empathy with the proles (who, by the way, often make more money and think themselves better than the precariously employed knowledge worker). And it is a paradox on the surface only: It isn’t hard to see behind this compulsive desire to not feel superior to the imagined man in the street (who is always somebody else, never oneself) the rationalization of genuine disgust. A Marxist-inspired left meanwhile still seeks refuge in the sociological traditionalism of blaming everything reprehensible on the petty bourgeoisie in order to keep its proletariat pure, if misled. As a matter of fact, the electoral base of right-wing populism is still to be found more in the lower middle class than in the remnants of the proletariat of yore. But the boundaries between these two strata haven’t been clearly delineated for a long time, and the assent of the precariat to its own disenfranchisement is far too great to exculpate it.

In the political game, no participant can afford to chip away at the following taboo: The voters are idiots, plain and simple. Idiots incapable of democracy. Such a verdict would be nothing but conceit by middle-class intellectuals if not targeted at ourselves as well, us middle-class intellectuals. Because by measure of our privileges, by ease of our access to education and reflection, we are infinitely bigger idiots than those we look down upon. Only one who grasps the infinite stupidity amidst their own ranks will lose their inhibition against calling out the stupidity of the rest of society.

This might sound more like a polemic than dispassionate political science or serious analysis. Or like literature. And only as such, only as highly strung pathos of artistic negativity, can this find acceptance. Like with Thomas Bernhard, who rarely argued his verdicts on the Austrians. All the more so did he further the culturalization and psychologization of a form of Austrian self-hatred which affirmed the Austrians as a people and which drove the amorphous residue of the Hapsburg monarchy into the essentialist corral and defined it as a common entity ex negativo. We, naturally, are loath to add yet another smug chapter to a long line of literary contempt for Austria. After all, idiocy as a functional complement to a neoliberalism increasingly run along authoritarian lines is a pan-European, if not international, development. It’s just that in Austria, in this decidedly affluent country, this idiocy finds a particularly folklorist expression in which the term ressentiment comes into its own, whereas with other nations it has to be understood more as a critical generalization. And in no way am I arguing from atop a cloud of penetrating certitude, but rather as one who is eager to scrub the filthy marks of political idiocy from his own consciousness.

The cruel truth: Never before was the individual further removed from understanding their own objective political and social interests, never was the ideal of the citoyen, the zoon politikon, so far out of reach. It’s from an irretrievable past that the echoes of a politically emancipatory consciousness ring out across to the present. By an infinite number of layered simulacra are the people—those monads of neoliberalism, teetering between powerlessness and a sense of entitlement—separated from understanding social reality and an active participation in it. Their consciousness is structured, both psychologically and emotionally, by pop songs, telenovelas, movies, and computer games, all of which are supplanting their real-life experience. Such a lack of trust in the intellection of the masses, foremost of the Austrian variety, quickly garners one the designation “elitist,” even though for decades now, if not for centuries, it has been verified in acceptably scientific real-world experiments. The proof lies in the populist pudding; the force that broke apart the postwar consensus of economic liberalism, which derides its followers by taking them seriously, looks down on them by seeing eye to eye with them. Jörg Haider was the pioneer of a political praxis often seen as postmodern that updated the politics of the spectacle, of carnival, of resentment, and nativist youth culture into a natty option one could identify with and which the antifascists, cognitively conditioned for National Socialist symbolism, had a really hard time grasping. The fact that Haider’s successors appeared as revenants risen from völkisch tombs and employed exactly these old templates, hasn’t exactly made the left any smarter.

Familiar is the Foot That Kicks Us

To pit identity politics against class struggle is admittedly disingenuous. But if we recall how long the former camp screened itself behind mostly lifestyle issues within its own milieu from questions of social politics and economics, unabated criticism thereof remains necessary, especially since the not unimportant niche demands coming from this camp affirm neoliberalism as a whole. Thus, to be on the left meant, in the post-Marxist decades from 1980 to 2010, rarely more than to consider oneself a bit queer, to identify with the cool talk show and not the reactionary one, to exchange information within one’s own ghetto about grant monies, to find the culture of migrants way more interesting than their problems, and to listlessly surf from one alternative media channel to the next within the Bermuda Triangle of what’s permissible, trendy, and possible. Debates on questions of class and economics were considered deepest dullsville, old Marxist student cell party-pooping crap. After all, the identity politics segment felt materially insulated. But when their increasingly precarious existence finally started to chip away at their former consciousness with mcjobs, temp work, and exploitation in the hospitality sector, they were, just like the ninety-nine percent, lacking the mental toolbox to appropriately comprehend this nasty world and to put up a fight against it. Isn’t life a bitch sometimes!

Misperceptions identical to those of the vectors of resentment were spreading through the lenses of the pop glasses: too much emphasis on individual actors in politics; personalized, psychologized, emotionalized, and moralized political processes; the mise-en-scene mistaken for the issue; a reigning cult of personality; and a lack of methodical ideology critique. One only has to be reminded of the violent hopes of salvation placed in Van der Bellen or the euphoria about Christian Kern. Or bring to mind the role played by political scientists who, in the media staging of political discussions, limit themselves, as if they were jurors at casting shows, to evaluating the rhetorical and psychological impressions the candidates make.

A realism so naive that it was incapable of differentiating the world of simulacra from one of concrete political interests also shaped the consciousness of the educated offspring of the bourgeoisie. Two generations of post-Marxist discursive preoccupation with symbols, signs, chiffres, identities, and representations bestowed intellectual validity on this distorted perception of politics. Everyone from these circles had, before the most recent boost of politicization since 2008, measured individual politicians by their charisma and the impression they made and fallen in the same way for the manipulative strategies of the media and the culture industry as the proles and the squares did, the ones they felt so superior to.

The seemingly cynical consequence: Where consciousness is sedated, the unconscious lies raw. He who appeals to it and at the same time nurtures the narcissists’ sense of self-worth—whom we in this neoliberal society can’t help being—will meet with unending political success. To hold on to voter loyalty with the help of marketing psychology is a demonic achievement of the Western right, against which political argument is utterly helpless. And the hope that, if public enlightenment won’t reassert itself in the near future, then at least an insight into one’s own political marginalization will develop, might turn out to be a necessary illusion by which reason arms itself against resignation. Nobody should therefore be surprised that the brutal redistributive policies of the turquoise-blue[4]cartel won’t in the least result in regret, rage, or reason among its voters. This can be partially explained by the authoritarian character that libidinally cathects the foot that is kicking it (as long as the other foot tramples scapegoats), and partially by the complete inability to cognitively grasp economic and socio-political measures and their concrete consequences for one’s own life.

The chances of this turquoise-blue liaison aren’t bad at all to not only continue into the next legislative period but to become a model for an unforeseeably long future. As much as the intellectuals are wont to make fun of Sebastian Kurz’s vacuous statements or the FPÖshooting themselves constantly in the foot, try as they might to mistake the ever newly piling up reports about that party’s fascist entanglements as the hopeful beginning of a democratic self-cleansing process, they are conflating their own fact-based frame of reference with the purely emotional one of the voting masses. What is doesn’t count, only how it comes across. Like his fans, Kurz has nothing to say but he says it with a conviction his fans envy. The greater part of those who voted for turquoise-blue are by no means Nazis; they are simply apolitical, just like the bigger portion of Austrians in 1938 were.

The new powers-that-be know only too well that the realm of content is least important when it comes to holding on to voters. For that, they address the most archaic, the most immature, the collective-emotional part in the species. They know that it doesn’t matter what you sell the people but how you do it. The liberal left can turn up its nose all it wants regarding the refreshing banality of this PR principle and still not realize that it itself has been a frequent customer in the political shopping mall. Over the last few decades, the left has wavered between pragmatic issue voting and dummy political marketing—for the former it was not oppositional enough, for the latter it acted too ham-fisted— as the tragic fate of the Green Party shows. The Greens tried to sell their inability to be neither fish nor fowl to themselves and to the world as a deliberate plan and a will to veganism.

Leftist Terrorists or Merely Oddball Museum Artefacts

The newer generations have no immediate connection to the Nazi era and are exposed to it only by way of a left-liberal culture of remembrance which they perceive as patronizing and see as a standing invitation for transgression, for taboo breaking. They now encounter capable young doers of a conservative bent who run the shop tolerably well and without all their predecessors’ quarreling. They are presented a narrative of reversal, of generational change, of a grounded politics with a sense for what’s appropriate compared to which the aloof urban segments left of center, with their constant alarmism, seem defective, projecting an image of hysteria. The new representatives of the people know only too well that they have the bigger part of the liberal consensus and its media already in the bag, given how they, with their usual opportunism, are pandering to them. The upright and idealist core of the affirmative center, on the other hand, is paralyzed from shock, and its left fringe with its moral pleas against the right is about as effective as a mosquito bite.

To present itself as the level-headed center and at the same time portray the former center and its “left” satellites as nervous, inauthentic, intellectually aloof, naively radical, or as unworldly do-gooders who blindly support Muslim fundamentalism, hold the misogyny of foreigners to a different standard, and want to press all of humanity to their Christian bosom, especially criminals, foreigners, and fundamentalists—that is the first and supreme task of this democracy play intended to secure this lurch to the right. All these various transgressions follow a well-calculated tactic of shifting baselines, which is meant to not only accustom the voting mainstream to hitherto unthinkable measures of horror out of the right-populist and neoliberal playbook but—and this is probably the greater danger—also the opposition. Once cautiously reformist social democratic demands are pigeonholed as leftist irresponsibilities in the consciousness of the majority, once liberals fancy themselves left-wingers because everything left of them has prophylactically shifted right or is demonized as potential terrorism, once the opposition refuses to tolerate criticism from the left in order to show itself united against the right, the new powers that be will have calculated right, their system of reference will be the all-determining one.

On a daily basis they probe how much the voters are prepared to put up with and what they find exceeds their highest expectations. It doesn’t matter how convincingly and empathetically the big city social workers and all those other intellectual wankers explain to them in their own language (which at best comes across as a parody) that these politics are selling them out and ripping them off. Let them talk until they are blue in their faces, their truths are so alien to us, we prefer the lies of our keepers, for they are our own. The smart ones and the do-gooders are simply marked as unappealing and uncool—and that is that. On an emotional plane or when it comes to signs, symbols, and frames of reference, they feel closer to the rightists and the propagandists from the chamber of commerce than to the truth tellers. If daddy rapes me—and I am fond of him—I’ll testify in court that the Arab or the Lefty did it, preferably both of them.

The holdouts of liberal political reason, who had already deceived themselves when they acted as executive body for a late-capitalist status quo and imagined themselves as hegemonic all the way up till October 2017, suddenly find themselves to be a discriminated minority. This time around, there is no safe haven in exile, there are no international courts to appeal to, no allies, no longer an American liberal republic, no powerful communist Russia left, not even European strongholds of restrained progressiveness. All these former chimeras of hope have now themselves dissolved into authoritarian-nationalist swamps. Once the electorate plays along and puts up with constant manipulation, this democratic sham can be kept going indefinitely, if need be.

Should the Austrians ever vote this government out of office, it will not have happened because it enriched the rich even further, curtailed civil rights, and threw many of them down the social ladder. The immediate consequences of these measures are beyond the direct ken of these voter monads and only manifest in stages and with a delay as creeping pauperization and cathartic relief in amorphous frustrations directed at people of less privilege purposely provided for the occasion. No; whether the government raises its hand to torture or to caress won’t matter, only weariness will ever vote it out of office. And to explain the motivation for such a possible change in government, one has to consult the cardinal tenets of consumer psychology; it is not political reasoning that will be decisive, but the conditionings of the commodity universe. Blue-turquoise will simply become boring, just like the old computer game.

An Immodest Proposal

The slight chance of success a progressive opposition has lies in a very specific combination of extreme idealism with extreme cynicism: It would have to finally acknowledge the total arbitrariness of content and see this as an opportunity to, for once, devil may come, launch the right issues. Such an opposition must market itself as if it were a new hip band, employing the whole catalog of hideous measures of marketing psychology that have become second nature to the idiots of all stripes, be they right, liberal, or left ones. Thus its cynicism. Its idealism would consist in keeping the issues unadulterated by populism, which would be solely reserved for the manipulation of the masses. The attempt to also shape the issues according to prevalent resentments has, to date and without failure, fucked up every single emancipatory movement for good. The half-life of such ethical and intellectual impurities exceeds that of Uranium and Cesium. To popularize issues without contaminating them with populism will most probably be beyond the skill of the handful of new left academic activists who are still cutting their teeth with Gramsci’s discourse of hegemony and are sliding back behind the insights of critical theory on the culture industry. They really seem to think they can apply their science to the Austrian populace as if it were the Italian one anno 1920.

The humiliated won’t accept help from the left. It’s the left, after all, that is upsetting the völkisch harmony between the humiliating and the humiliated by raising this issue of humiliation in the first place. However, all attempts by the left to lure the masses with patriotic oompah lead down a slippery slope into the jingoist cesspool. And every attempt to faithfully uphold its solidarity with migrants, refugees, the underprivileged, and the sexually discriminated, is turning off the working-class masses. Thus, the left is marked as dwelling in a middle-class intellectual urban ghetto with no chance of connecting with the working class or of being taken seriously by it as its representatives. The nimbus of the aloof loser clings to it.

The rabid FPÖDoberman pinschers are inflating the importance of the left losers by declaring them potential enemies of state and thus grading them up—and at the same time down—to martyrs. Which, from the perspective of power, is extremely bad politics. A smart right-wing regime behind a carnival mask of democracy would suffer the indigenous pockets of resistance as curious artifacts of interesting but overcome epochs, and if at all only discreetly fall back behind the accomplishments of sexual and gender political liberalism (women are still kept from the executive floor but the achievements of feminism are distorted into collective ones coming out of the broader culture). It would at the same time continue its crackdown against the other, the intruders, the refugees, with an iron fist in order to hold this false collective in a perpetual state of defense readiness. The greater the degree of restraint such a regime shows towards its powerless critics, the more it cedes the realm of culture to them to vent in, the surer its success. No need for total militarization, for hamming it up in the role of the victim, for bursting with fateful pathos, no extermination camps are necessary, superfluous are all the high-risk dictatorial hoopla if the switch of social and political rights for national pride, exclusionary nativism, and entertainment is accomplished behind the facade of democracy.

Behold the Thousand Year Reich of Potemkin Democracy.

What only shall we do? Resist, of course! What else is there?

First and foremost, though, we need to with unbearable realism face, admit, and endure the myriad, convoluted, and thoroughly nested extent of all the cognitive distortions we live with and are utterly entangled in. He who survives this mentally intact will be strong—and at the same time sufficiently deformed to inflict pain on the reigning insanity on all fronts imaginable.

Translated from the German by Johannes Weinkirn & Steve Seaward.

Richard Schuberth lives and writes mostly in Vienna. His publications in English include an essay on #Me Too in Counterpunch and a sample from his aphoristic lexicon, The New Devil’s Dictionary, in Wordpeace, Issue 2.2, Winter-Spring 2018. In the fall of 2018, his book-length essay “Narcissism and Conformity” will be published by Matthes & Seitz.                                                                      

Johannes Weinkirn is a translator in New York City.

Steve Seaward is an editor in Beacon, NY. 


[1]     FPÖ: Freedom Party of Austria

[2]     ÖVP: Austrian People’s Party

[3]   AfD: Alternative for Germany

[4]   turquoise-blue: the representative colors of ÖVP—turquoise—and FPÖ—blue.

Richard Schuberth lives and writes mostly in Vienna. His last publication in English was a sample from his aphoristic lexicon, The New Devil’s Dictionary, in Wordpeace, Issue 2.2, Winter-Spring 2018. In the fall of 2018, his book-length essay “Narcissism and Conformity” will be published by Matthes & Seitz.