In this Series, our Head of Ideology Research Unit Balša Lubarda speaks to some of the people helping to make CARR the ‘one-stop shop for knowledge and resources on right-wing extremism’. Today’s guest is Agata Kałabunowska.
Agata is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for Radical Right Analysis (CARR) and a member of CARR’s Ideology Research Unit (IRU). Agata’s research is focused on the ideology of the contemporary extreme right in Germany. She is currently a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznań, and her research interests lie in contemporary German politics, right-wing extremism, migration and multiculturalism.
You have joined both the IRU and CARR recently. Could you tell us a bit about your motivations to engage with ideological debates through CARR – what is it that you would like to accomplish through your CARR’s membership?
I have been observing the activities of CARR from the very beginning. I was impressed by their work, up-to-date publications and the variety of the backgrounds of CARR’s fellows. I thought it was a great place to be for all those involved in studying the far right. I also wanted to connect with scholars from all over the world on a regular basis, not only during seminars or conferences. Having contact with CARR fellows has provided me with the chance to stay on top of current developments in this field of research – that was my main motivation for joining.
You have been studying the far right in Germany during the times of the so-called ‘migration crisis’. Do you think that the issue of migration will continue to mould far-right activism in the long term or will it be replaced by other salient issues?
Indeed, the timeframe of my study overlaps with the migration crisis and its aftermath. At the same time, neither migratory movements, nor the far right, are new phenomena: this is the case both in Germany and elsewhere. Professor Uwe Backes, who was supervising my research stay at the Hannah Arendt Institute for the Research on Totalitarianism (HAIT) in Dresden, in his book “Political Extremes: A conceptual history from antiquity to the present,” made it clear that extremism has a long pedigree – longer than we might expect, especially because the scholars in our field tend to focus on the far right in the post-war period.
I was also familiar with the research connecting the problem of migration with far-right anti-immigrant attitudes. These studies do not provide clear answers. Some of them, indeed, show that the far-right scene strengthens its message and political power over the issue of migration. But many other studies show the contrary, for example that extreme groups emerge and do well in countries and regions known for small or virtually non-existent immigrant communities. Therefore, in my study, I have treated the migration crisis as the historical background rather than the cause of far-right strength in Germany. What is more, it was not a study of a causation design so conclusions of this kind would not be valid. I believe researching extreme groups with this historical background in mind helped me grasp the nature of far-right xenophobia and islamophobia. I also had a chance to observe how German public discourse on migration, as a whole, changes and how it reinforces the discourse within the far-right scene itself.
In your recent book based on your doctoral thesis, you operationalised Michael Freeden’s morphological approach to ideologies. What do you think is the value of the morphological approach in studying the far right? What about the scholarly demarcations, such as the difference between the radical and the extreme right? How useful did you find these in your own research?
Michael Freeden’s approach to studying ideologies turned out to be very helpful in this particular study. First of all, I was able to confirm that the ideology of the extreme right ‘behaves’ in the same way as other political ideologies that had been studied with the application of the morphological analysis before. For most scholars in our field it is pretty clear that it is a fully-fledged ideology. However, from what I see, there is still a tendency in the public discourse to treat the extreme right as a collection of accidental, irrational and contradictory claims. My study proves the contrary – it is a well-developed ideology with a hierarchical structure of ideological concepts. Moreover, this approach may come in handy to differentiate the ideology of the extreme right and the ideology of populism, which in my opinion are two different phenomena sharing several common ideological concepts. Answering one of your questions, I am not sure, however, if this is a tool to demarcate extreme right from radical right.
Secondly, Michael Freeden’s approach treats ideology as day-to-day manifestations and expressions of political thinking. These manifestations are not limited to political parties only – basically everyone can express political thinking in one way or another. This approach helps to combine, in one study, far-right groups of various organizational forms. For example, I have studied both political parties as well as political movements. Not all approaches and methodologies within political science guarantee such flexibility, and this is, in my view, another advantage of Freeden’s approach.
I see also a third advantage of morphological analysis, which was particularly important in understanding the German case. The starting point of most definitions of extremism coined by German political scientists is the assumption that extremism is anti-democratic and anti-liberal. This is also how the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) understands various forms of extremism. This is why in the German language literature, we usually come across negative definitions, which focus on explaining what ‘extremism is not’’. Given the disputes over the definition of democracy, this kind of reasoning becomes difficult, if not tautological. Michael Freeden’s suggestion can help to break up with negative definitions because the starting point is different. We can approach a given ideology without presumptions, we read and analyse the material we have gathered, and only then do we draw conclusions.
Yet, the applications of this approach (although not the approach itself) are often criticised on the grounds of an overly modular understanding of ideologies, parsing out neatly between core, adjacent, and peripheral concepts.
After conducting my study I would not say it was easy to align particular ideological concepts to the particular ‘layers’ of the ideological structure. Just as a reminder, Michael Freeden’s approach assumes that each political ideology has three layers or clusters of concepts: core, adjacent and peripheral. Drawing such a structure of extreme-right ideology in my own study required numerous readings of the research material. It was not only about pointing out what these groups are thinking, but also understanding why they are thinking in this particular way, where do these beliefs come from?
The extreme-right approach to policies regarding family are a good example. After the first reading of a given programme, one might have come to the conclusion that the far right view on family is a traditional one, or that they have a very specific understanding of the role(s) of women. However, after demarcating other preferred policies and many additional readings, it becomes clear that this specific view on family matters does not come out of the blue. It is based on far-right understanding of the nature of the world, the role of an individual (collective rather than individualistic thinking), the need to protect the nation (e.g. from so-called ‘deviants’, such as homosexuals) or the wish for the nation to expand (hence, pro-family postulates). In the end, one can conclude that the extreme-right family policies actually tell us more about their nationalism and collectivism rather than about their views on family itself.
Regarding the overly modular understanding of ideologies that you have mentioned, I would not say Michael Freeden’s approach is more modular in its nature than other ideological approaches to studying the far right. There is a long list of publications whose authors have a tendency to create ‘ideological shopping lists’. Scholars feel the need to grasp the ideological nature of the far right in one way or another, and that is understandable. However, the advantage of the morphological approach over other approaches is, in my view, that it concentrates more on the relations between ideological concepts rather than just on listing them. When using this approach, it is not justified to just point out that ‘concept X fitswell in the adjacent layer of the ideology’. You always need to legitimize this decision by explaining how concept X relates to other concepts – why it isn’t in the core or in the periphery.
You also research the role of religious sentiments in far-right ideology. Ideology and religion have a somewhat ambivalent relationship, ranging from a full theocratic embrace and convergence to a complete rejection, that often pushes religion beyond the boundaries of the secular. The far-right ideological spectrum seems to be equally ambivalent on the issue, from neo-pagans and far-right atheists to national-conservative and right-wing populist Christians. What does one need to keep in mind when accounting for religion in the study of the far right?
My study of five German far-right groups highlights the ambivalent relationship that you have pointed out. I dealt with organizations approaching religion in various ways but, I would say, generally none of them were interested in grounding their far-right claims in religion. Interestingly, in the gathered material, references were made not to their own religion but mostly to the religion of the newcomers to their countries– the immigrants. For example, the National Party of Germany (NPD) made only two references to religion in the manifesto that I analyzed, and the religion that they referred to was Islam. Similarly, Pro Bewegung has built its political programme on the outrage over building mosques. Many groups I studied, for example. Die Rechte, do not mention religion at all. Nonetheless, quite a lot of right-wing parties also present themselves as protectors of the Judeo-Christian heritage, referring to religion or religiousness on a more general level.
At the same time, studies on far-right groups in more religiously-defined countries, such as Poland or Slovakia, stress that religion sometimes does come in handy when spreading radical views. An interesting paper by Dominika Tronina points out that there are tight bonds between Polish far right groups and clergymen. I believe this is an interesting and under-researched niche. It may also gain salience in the context of the current discussion about the rights of the LBGTQ+ community that are causing tensions within the Christian community. It is also interesting from the point of view of the morphological approach. Is it possible that religion could show up within the morphological structure in the study of the far right in one country and not in the case of another country? Or maybe religion is not a part of the ideological structure but rather a strategic tool? This is something I would like to focus on in my future research.
The German elections are now behind us, and it seems as if the far right has not improved its position nationwide. What are some of the trends with respect to the far right in Germany that you find to be commonly overlooked, or important to accentuate?
Indeed, the only significant far-right party represented on the federal level – the AfD – lost around 2,3 percentage points compared to the 2017 elections. However, although the AfD weakened Germany-wide, it proved its strength in the eastern part of Germany. The AfD turned out to be the strongest political party in Thuringia (24%) and Saxony (24,6%), and the second strongest political power in Brandenburg (18,1%) as well as Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (18%). Experts and commentators point out two especially worrying trends. First of all, the AfD has ‘stolen’ voters from Christian Democrats, whose result was really weak this time, and secondly, this election showed – again – a huge socio-political division of Germany between the West and the East.
It is often forgotten that parties considered to be ‘more extreme’ than the AfD are also allowed to run in the elections, and that there are actually really many other parties to choose from (this year there were 47), not only the six biggest ones that the media are focusing on. For example, NPD or Der III. Weg were categorized as extreme right parties by the Verfassungsschutz, but can nonetheless be seen on the ballot paper among other political groups. They barely got any votes but they enjoy the same rights as other political actors. Another overlooked element is that the small extreme right parties (Kleinparteien) do run in elections on local levels, obtaining a small share of the votes (bigger, though, than on the federal level), sometimes allowing them to enter local parliaments or city councils.
I would say there is another trend worth observing, namely the tendency of the German extreme right to gather, not around political parties, but rather looser structures or on the internet. The German Identitarian Movement is a great example of a group portraying itself as not interested in ‘rotten’ parliamentary politics but operating in the ‘metapolitics’. They are declaring a cultural and intellectual war against current politics and plan to perform it outside of the parliament. This is a wise strategy, given the history of banning extreme right political parties in Germany and growing disinterest in ‘traditional politics’ among the younger generation that the Identitarians are now trying to appeal to. At the same time, Verfassungsschutz is now very sensitive towards the non-partisan groups as well – its focus on the think tank ‘Institut für Staatspolitik’ is one recent case. The Federal Office also builds up its counter-extremism and counter-radicalisation strategies in the online world. Observing these developments will definitely be interesting, since we, as scholars of the far right, know how creative this community can be in spreading its political views.
You can read more about Agata’s work on far-right politics in Germany here.
Read more interviews with CARR Fellows here.
Find out more about CARR’s Ideology Research Unit here.