Die Gesellschaft des Zorns: Rechtspopulismus im globalen Zeitalter by Cornelia Koppetsch
This is part of our special feature, Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe.
In Die Gesellschaft des Zorns: Rechtspopulismus im globalen Zeitalter, Cornelia Koppetsch presents a sociological analysis that seeks to explain the growing appeal of reactionary and authoritarian movements in industrialized Western societies—evidenced in Germany by the foundation of the Alternative für Deutschland in 2013 and its election to the Bundestag in 2017. Koppetsch’s analysis links the emergence of extreme-right populist movements and the attendant preference for nationalist over cosmopolitan narratives to a paradigm shift from industrial-national modernity toward globalism. Koppetsch notes that global modernity is subtended by a progressive neoliberal narrative that sees the market as the remedy to all societal ills. She posits further that the process of globalization contributes to the erosion of the nation state through a variety of newly formed transnational structures. These include the transnational organization of corporations and the formation of transnational professional and migrant communities, but also the use of off-shore tax havens by the wealthy and the relegation of political decisions to supranational organizations and institutions. In addition to being supplanted by transnational formations, the nation state is also under pressure from within through processes of subnational fragmentation. Such fragmentation is evident in various forms of intranational polarization that pits global cities against peripheral, deindustrialized regions, but also in the formation of social enclaves within these global cities and in the exponential growth of income inequality (in the US, the income of the richest 10 percent is almost as high as that of the entire middle class).
Koppetsch lists both the winners and losers of these processes of globalization. The winners essentially comprise two groups: a global elite with enormous economic and cultural capital and the poor in developing countries. The losers include not only the lower class but also the traditional middle class in the industrial West whose members now face stiff international competition on the job market. Consequently, instead of conflicts along the fault lines of a class-based hierarchy contained within the nation state, we now find a complex distribution of power on a transnational patchwork quilt. Importantly, Koppetsch draws attention to the fact that the nation state, in its incarnation as welfare state, has traditionally functioned as a guarantor of solidarity between different social groups. Consequently, she points to a link between the erosion of the nation state and a loss of intranational social cohesion. This loss of cohesion is exacerbated by the negative effects of processes of individualization, as they are identified with modernity in general and neoliberalism in particular. Koppetsch notes that individualist concepts of identity put a lot of pressure on the self. In neoliberal thinking, the self alone, not a socio-economic system such as capitalism, is responsible for personal success and failure. Neoliberalist individuation burdens the self with the full weight of its “life choices.” Thus, social inequality is seen as a result of personal style, taste, and knowledge; precarious forms of employment are presented as possibilities for creative self-realization (“Ich-AG”); and the loss of a functioning health care system is reinterpreted as an expansion of personal choices. On a psychological level, this means that self-blame and depression take the place of structural analysis and a collective fight for social justice. To relieve the neoliberal pressure on the individual, extreme-right populism offers two conceptual maneuvers. First, feelings of guilt, self-blame, and shame are externalized and projected onto scapegoats. Thus, the stigma attached to one’s own group (“Ossis,” “rednecks”) is redirected onto another group (“Mexican rapists,” “Syrian terrorists”). Secondly, low self-esteem is remedied through identification with “neo collectives,” in particular with ethno-nationalist or fundamentalist groups. Membership in these groups bestows a number of privileges, including intragroup solidarity and a sense of belonging. Since such membership is defined as innate or biologically given, these privileges are seen as a birth right that is not subjected to market forces.
In addition to parsing the strategies of extreme-right movements, Koppetsch analyzes the different values and lifestyles on the right and left end of the political spectrum. While the left embraces cosmopolitanism and transnational connections, the political right emphasizes renationalization and solidarity within a culturally homogeneous nation. While the right embraces community, the left promotes authenticity, self-realization, creativity, and flexibility. The clientele of the right tends to defend privilege and is concerned with those who are downwardly mobile, while the left tends to fight against discrimination and bias for those who are upwardly mobile. Interestingly, Koppetsch argues that both the left and the right rely on methods of exclusion: the right seeks to close national borders, while the left elite lives in prohibitively expensive neighborhoods and sends its children to exclusive private schools.
Koppetsch offers several important insights that anyone who hopes to develop strategies against extreme-right parties should heed. She argues that extreme-right movements are successful because they do not seek to remedy specific concerns but rather respond to global feelings. Consequently, she doubts that an issue-based opposition could gain the support of right-leaning voters and instead encourages the left to speak to the emotions, to craft a “demokratische Gefühlspolitik” (256). Politics, as Koppetsch notes, is not only about promoting one’s interest but also about defining one’s identity. According to Koppetsch, the left fails to understand that voters of extreme right parties are not primarily motivated by economic considerations but rather by cultural conflicts, by a fight for social recognition and power. She points out that, if economic concerns were the primary motor of discontent, left-wing parties who propose to fight capitalist exploitation should benefit from the ressentiments of right-leaning voters. Here, I believe Koppetsch’s analysis is incomplete. While Koppetsch is right to highlight the importance of cultural conflicts, it is also important to see that the motivations of extreme-right voters are not uniform. While some are primarily driven by a sense of disrespect and are angry that women and minorities are “cutting in line,” others are mainly concerned with their own unemployment or precarious financial situation. Moreover, there is a significant group of voters that is being misled and swayed by online propaganda. Koppetsch’s book, however, is largely oblivious to the nefarious effects of targeted, algorithm-based advertising on sites such as facebook. The impact of such manipulation on electoral decisions, however, is amply demonstrated by researchers such as Kathleen Hall Jamieson whose excellent Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Elected a President: What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know argues convincingly that the online dissemination of slanderous lies gave Trump the edge in the 2016 election.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Koppetsch’s book has been accused of plagiarism. The book was nominated for the Bavarian Book Prize, but then removed from the list because of multiple accusations of plagiarism. Koppetsch’s employer, the TU Darmstadt, is currently investigating the extent of the author’s academic misconduct. Regardless of the outcome of this investigation, Die Gesellschaft des Zorns does not excel through innovative arguments, but rather presents a multi-factor analysis and sweeping overview whose strength lies in the compilation and evaluation of a wide range of scholarship on her chosen subject matter. As such, it is eminently useful. In particular, one of the book’s most important contributions lies in its emphasis on the blind spots of left-leaning narratives whose proponents tend to promote openness while practicing social exclusivity through pricey neighborhoods and private schools.
In spite of some highly relevant insights, however, there are a number of omissions that strike me as problematic. To begin with, Koppetsch occasionally hints at the relevance of gender categories, for example, when she notes the preference for traditional gender roles in extreme-right movements, but does not reflect on the purchase of gender on our current political crisis. And yet, the fact that Trump triumphed over the first female candidate for the presidency is not incidental. Similarly, it is important that in France the defeated right-extreme Front National was led by a woman whereas the opposing party was spearheaded by a young male politician. Sociologists like Koppetsch would do well to pay more attention to the nexus of gender and power that is analyzed brilliantly in Mary Beard’s Women & Power. In the German context, Dorothee Beck’s Politikerinnen und ihr Griff zur Macht offers a detailed analysis of how gender stereotypes inflect the public perception and media representations of female candidates for office. Finally, there are several moments in the book when Koppetsch’s arguments are marked by a lack of differentiation. For example, Koppetsch notes that women and the gay community made tremendous social gains in the sixties, but have not yet reflected on their integration into the dominant group (35). Since women are still drastically underrepresented in positions of power in business and politics, this is, at best, a rather incomplete analysis. Similarly, at times, the author displays a problematic fondness for combining a casual comment on a social phenomenon with a sweeping claim to its overarching significance without offering a detailed analysis, for example, when she singles out the prohibition of smoking in public areas as a sign of our era’s dwindling “Ambiguitätstoleranz” (56). In light of such shortcoming and the ongoing investigation into the author’s academic misconduct, it is difficult to recommend this book wholeheartedly. At the same time, Koppetsch offers much food for thought, and her contribution to our understanding of right-wing populism is too important to dismiss this work off hand.
Elisabeth Krimmer is Professor of German at the University of California, Davis. She is the author and editor of 16 books, including German Life Writing and the Holocaust: Gender and Complicity in the Second World War (Cambridge UP, 2018).
Die Gesellschaft des Zorns: Rechtspopulismus im globalen Zeitalter
By Cornelia Koppetsch
Paperback / 288 Pages / 2019
Beard, Mary. 2017. Women & Power: A Manifesto. London: Profile Books,
Beck, Dorothee. 2016. Politikerinnen und ihr Griff zur Macht: Mediale Repräsentationen von SPD-Spitzenpolitikerinnen bei Landtagswahlen. Bielefeld: transcript, .
Hall Jamieson, Kathleen. 2020. Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Elected a President: What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know. New York: Oxford University Press,
Published on June 3, 2020.