Picture credit: Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Artillery Row

A very postmodern coup

History has ended but it hasn’t stopped

History, we are told, having been killed off in the 90s, has taken its brutal revenge in the 21st century. Religion is back and blowing up public buildings and toppling Middle Eastern governments. Movements of the far left and right dominate the European political scene, with the centre struggling to maintain control. Financial crashes descend like it’s 1929, pandemics recall us to our mortal nature and reveal the vulnerability of our societies. Climate change lurks in the atmosphere threatening apocalyptic change. Putin has unleashed an old-school land war in Eastern Europe, and, just to complete the picture, Germany just quashed a far-right coup attempt.

Yes, history is back or is it? If the end of history was a trite concept, its much heralded return may also be a case of puffed up punditry doing PR for a far more chaotic age than we’re comfortable acknowledging. It may be odd to say it, but the fear of a return to the 1930s may be a comforting myth.

Yes, of course, the horrors of totalitarianism and total war are fearsome and sinister phantoms, but they’re also familiar terrors. For all the bloodshed of the last century, the confrontation between Democracy, Fascism and Communism appear to us as clear cut light and shadow conflicts. Powerful, coherent ideologies with flags, armies and openly stated agendas are psychologically reassuring compared to the uncertainty and anxiety of our (post)modern age.

This was all too evident in an especially ridiculous thread even by the silly standards of Twitter which claimed that the modern Conservative party fits the 14 criteria given by Umberto Eco for a Fascist government:

When opponents of right wing populism describe the Trumps and Bolsonaros (and even Boris Johnsons) of this world as fascists, they are indulging in a kind of negative nostalgia for the moral simplicity of fighting the Nazis. But in refusing to diagnose the clearly novel and perhaps far more ambiguous nature of modern populism, they are blinding themselves to the world as it really is, and ruling themselves out of having a real or relevant political programme or response. Yes many populists indulge in fascist-like rhetoric, but not a single one has come close to fascist methods of political or economic organisation.

What opponents of modern day nationalism fatally miss is that Fascism is not merely discredited and demonised as an ideology it is actually impossible under modern conditions. Fascism emerged very specifically in the first age of mass media, spreading via the megaphone, radio, cinema and cheap newspapers. Totalitarian movements in general relied on a population still shaped by Christian ideas of sacrifice and duty but increasingly abandoning the corresponding moral and theological commitments, and eager to embrace ideologies promising a material paradise whether via industrial socialism or scientific racism.

Today however media is fragmented and society is atomised. Like the memes and political crazes that spread on social media, populist movements have sudden brushfire surges that quickly burn themselves out, but are sure to return in their incendiary season. These broad but extremely shallow bases of support cannot mobilise armies of supporters willing to employ political violence to overthrow democracy or beat up their opponents. Few are willing to kill or be killed for the sake of the State or their political ideology 47% of people in the UK are unwilling, in principle, to fight for their country and only 29% would. In the case of Germany, where the coup attempt occurred, only 22% of the population would be willing to fight for their nation, and 54% would refuse to. Values have shifted and in an individualistic age many have an increasingly transactional relationship with their country, and have few feelings of personal loyalty to their political community.

I think many of us know, intuitively, that we are living in a very different world than that of the 1930s, and perhaps that explains why the reaction to a far right coup attempt in Germany the sort of thing that would have inspired horror in the 1950s or 60s was met largely with amusement, sarcasm and ridicule on social media.

The coup was led by Heinrich Prinz Reuss zu Köstritz, the self-styled Prince Heinrich XIII, a descendant of one of the great ruling families of the Holy Roman Empire. Denounced by more senior members of the clan as a “distant relative” who “peddles conspiracy theories”, he has previously assaulted a journalist, called Germany a “vassal state” and blamed the World Wars on the masons and the Rothchilds. He and a group of fellow travellers plotted, variously, the kidnapping of the German health minister, the takeover of several army barracks and the storming of the Reichstag, all, allegedly, with Russian help and encouragement.

Criticisms of the coup came thick and fast on Twitter. One user lamented the sartorial failings of the plotters, who had a distinct lack of the snazzy uniforms that so enlivened previous and more successful far right coups in Germany

Others noted that the coup would have resulted in a very ineffective government dynastic German politics makes the modern Bundestag look positively efficient

Some of course took it more seriously, with various American twitter users blaming Donald Trump, with one account calling Trump a “global infection” –– rather ironically much the same sort of language everyone from Hitler to modern day conspiracy theorists were fond of.

The account, called “Duty to Warn” describes itself as “An association of mental health professionals warning NOW about TrumpISM. #UNTRUTH documentary, the follow-up doc to 2020’s #UNFIT, to be widely released soon.”

The coup plotters themselves are an extremely weird bunch, a group called the “Reichsbürger” or “Reich citizens” which takes direct inspiration from the American “sovereign citizens” movement and claims that the current German state is an illegitimate occupation government and seeks to restore the German Reich of 1871, Kaiser and all.

This is not the return of fascism, a highly effective and well organised movement that had support at the highest levels of the military and industry, and could mobilise hundreds of thousands of motivated supporters. The comparison between this and Trump’s January 6 attempt to overturn the 2020 election is apt, not because of how serious and sinister the Capitol riot was, but because of how equally absurd and doomed both attempts were.

The German “coup” was a true postmodern non-event, a media phenomenon with maximal “reach” but minimal connection to reality; carried out by minor nobility and social outcasts driven by conspiracy theories, and blending European conservative nostalgia with US-style conspiratorial libertarianism.

One Marxist suggested that many of those involved in the coup and the movement may be under the influence of the German police and security services

This possibility may sound conspiratorial, but it might equally be true it’s well known that Western internal security and intelligence agencies monitor extremist groups, and there have been numerous scandals in Britain and America involving the dubious actions of undercover police and agents, and the degree to which extremists are entrapped by authorities into going from talk to action.

Either way the postmodern nature of it all stands even clearer we don’t know where we stand, we don’t know if the event itself, in all its absurdity, is even real, or a kind of Potemkin putsch. Were the Russians involved? And did they really want to overthrow the German government or just sow confusion and mistrust? We don’t know and may never know.

But if we’ve moved beyond the quasi-romantic fervour of the ideological totalitarianism of the last century, authoritarianism is not only very real, but on the rise. The response demanded to this non-event, this conspiratorial conspiracy against an imagined occupation, will be for more surveillance, more censorship, more intellectual conformity not just in Germany, but worldwide.

Conspiracy theorists are themselves a useful distraction, a great cloud of misleading dust, kicked up by the great powers of the world. Anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists of every kind flourished in the dark days of the pandemic, but amidst all the “fact-checking” and the “national conversations” we all somehow forgot to worry about the most severe and long-lasting suspension of civil liberties in British history since the Second World War including restrictions never before imposed by a British government in our history.

The fascist phantasmagoria obscures the new forms of totalitarianism, which subtly render many liberties redundant rather than abolished. Freedom of speech, for instance, is in theory maintained, but between the regulation of speech within the modern workplace and the monopolisation and publicisation of information and personal data through social media, the effective forums for free speech are removed.

The aspect of fascism we most obsess over its willingness to inflict death and demand absolute loyalty to the state belongs to a dying form of politics. Philosophers like Foucault and Agamben identify this shift as the move away from the sovereign state’s right to commit its subjects to death, and towards the administration of life what they call “biopolitics”. This aspect of fascism has survived the fall of the old totalitarian states and has come to dominate Western and non-Western states alike. The biopolitics of China is formal and open from the social credit system to their unprecedented lockdown. But these measures are quietly emulated or even publicly admired by the West who embrace them implicitly and passively.

History in the old sense of a great battle of ideas and perspectives, of warring civilizational narratives has indeed come to an end. Humans have rendered themselves passive participants in and agents of a post-human world in which politics has been replaced by technocratic management. But we are political and social animals, and aren’t suited or adapted to the world we are building for ourselves. History may have ended — but as we’re going to discover, it hasn’t stopped just because the train doesn’t have a driver.

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