Homeland, Far-Right Nationalism, and Environmentalism beyond Trump

To cite this article: Nitzan Shoshan (2021) Homeland, Far-Right Nationalism, and Environmentalism beyond Trump, Anthropology Now, 13:1, 44-48, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2021.1903523

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2021.1903523

Nitzan Shoshan

As the  lights  dim  on  another  chapter of  White   nationalism,   authoritarian-

ism and climate change denialism with the indecorous departure of Donald J. Trump from the presidency of the United States, many have rightly cautioned that the impact of the past four years will linger for much longer. The defining trends of the Trump regime—the blatant incitement of White supremacy, egregious misogyny and flagrant hetero-patriarchy; the bolstering of authoritarian, masculine fantasies and the erection of a proto-fascist personality cult carefully rewired and condensed for the reality show, telegraphic Twitter era; the viral spread of wild conspiracy theories and the attendant repudiation of evidence and science; as well as the unprecedently brazen nepotism and un- abashed corruption—will not quietly dissipate with his electoral defeat. And yet, as others have pointed out, nor did they begin with the Trump presidency. The roots of racism and pa- triarchy, graft and cronyism, state violence and American exceptionalism are embedded in the past and extend as well toward the future, far beyond their most recent manifestations.

In the face of this most recent crisis of democracy, certain progressive  discourses in the U.S. have invoked Europe as an alternative political horizon. From social welfare provisions or environmental policies to public confidence in evidence-based scientific knowledge, Europe is imagined as a place where some of the factors said to boost nationalist racism in the U.S. are less firmly at hand. According to these narratives, if the incoming Democratic administration fails to deliver on its promises to provide social welfare protections of the sort more widely avail- able in European social democracies, the U.S. will risk a return of Trumpism to power in the near future.

There are several problems with this view. It assumes that providing robust social democratic mechanisms of welfare distribution will serve as a bulwark against the rising tide of fascist authoritarian currents. It entails, therefore, a related and dangerous assumption about the social location of right nationalist malaise in the U.S. and elsewhere, namely, at the bottom end of the socioeconomic ladder. It misguidedly blames far-right extremism on the most marginalized of national (racial, ethnic, religious) majorities. According to this story, the precarious circumstances and economic resentment of the poor cause them to project their frustrations and their fears upward, as anti-elitist and anti-intellectual populism, and downward, as hatred toward ethnic or racialized minorities. Yet, while in specific historical and national contexts, the far right has enjoyed disproportional support from the poor (today’s Germany is one such instance), its ascribed capacity to summon the lower classes to its cause has, in fact, varied greatly. Such an explanation cannot adequately account for numerous other cases, including the contemporary resurgence of the far right in the U.S.

Most important, however, Europe can hardly serve as an exemplary horizon because it is the region where the recent political ascendence of the far right has shown its earliest, most intransigent and formidable ex- pressions. Moreover, this has been especially true in such strongly social democratic countries as France, Austria, the Netherlands and Italy. Far from an exception or early portent, Trumpism was in fact a latecomer to an electoral tide of nationalist, at times neo-fascist, political movements on display in Europe and elsewhere since the turn of the millennium at the latest. The challenges posed by the contemporary upsurge of far-right movements and political parties must therefore be understood as part of a process that transcends recent developments in the U.S. both temporally and spatially.

In Europe, their rise has roughly coincided with the emergence of climate change as a major public concern across the globe—indeed, as the defining crisis of our time. Today, with climate devastation unfolding all around us, the same political voices that have championed social democratic redistributive welfare policies as a bulwark against far-right nationalism often also hold out the hope that the looming catastrophe could herald a new era of international solidarity and cooperation, indispensable for tackling its overwhelmingly complex and irreducibly transnational nature. The admittedly sharp contrast between the chauvinistic unilateralism and climate change denialism of the Trump administration, on one hand, and the multilateral diplomacy and environmental commitment of the Biden administration, on the other, would seem to support this reading. However, such hopes fail to acknowledge the long-standing historical links between environmentalism and nationalism. More important, as my recent research suggests, they also fall short of recognizing the appeal that these links continue to exercise and the dangerous openings they may offer to green nationalism, ecofascism and political authoritarianism in the near future.

To address the simultaneous onslaught of authoritarian political movements and anxieties about environmental futures, my recent research has focused on the swelling of discourses and practices of Heimat in Germany in the past decade as a heuristic for understanding the rising appeal of the far right in the country. The German word Heimat is often translated into English as “homeland.” Like “homeland,” Heimat may suggest a national sense of belonging. But the German term has broader and more ambiguous meanings. More commonly, it refers to other scales of affective attachment. More akin to the Spanish terruño or the French terroir, Heimat most often gestures toward intimate, local belongings, such as one’s village, region or neighborhood. It summons sensorial images of familiar landscapes, vernacular dialects and linguistic expressions; attributed peculiarities of social mannerisms; the unique scents and flavors of cherished cuisines and local brews; distinctive cultural traditions such as festivals and celebrations; typical architectural forms; or flora and fauna, waterways and topographies, seasonal patterns and agricultural cycles.

My focus on Heimat aimed to shift the view from the hypervisible political margins to broader affective investments shared by populations often glossed as mainstream. In- deed, Heimat can be—and often is—employed rather offhandedly to refer to the place of one’s birth or residence. Yet its capacity to gesture to multiple scales, some extraordinarily intimate and others quite abstract, allows it to tie together a range of attachments marked by sensorial immediacy, treasured memories and notions of local belonging. It can therefore project strong affective investments from intimate to far broader contexts.

The widely noted resurgence of this concept in recent years is strongly indebted to government policy. It is aggressively promoted through programs and initiatives at all institutional levels—from the European Union to federal and state governments, district councils and municipal administrations. Such programs have funneled financial resources and expert knowledge to Heimat practices and institutions, including associations, museums, festivals and educational curricula. While the state-administered cultivation of Heimat-related affects often presents itself as concerned with the consolidation of robust and dynamic communities, it always also answers to economic interests and to the domestic tourism industry in particular. Moreover, the term Heimat has enjoyed a similar upturn in the rhetoric of political parties across the spectrum, most emphatically yet far from exclusively in the electoral propaganda of the far right.

Against this background of burgeoning Heimat emotions and a concentrated state effort to incite and administer them, my fieldwork has brought me to several important sites for thinking about the political significance of this reawakening in the current historical moment, including small-town museums, cultural associations, provincial tourism offices, restored churches turned into community film screening venues. Here, I draw on one particular thread of this broader research project to suggest how forms of be- longing foregrounded by Heimat and intimately intertwined with the politics of racial nationalism have adapted themselves to the politics of environmentalism, and how concerns over sustainable food production, declining biodiversity or invading species are reshaping politics, in turn.

During the late summer and early fall of 2019, I worked intermittently on a small organic farm in Brandenburg. The farm was not typical of the East German countryside, where most collectively owned GDR agricultural land was sold off in the aftermath of reunification to the highest bidder, inevitably gargantuan agrobusiness investors who prioritized heavily mechanized, low labor, monocultural production on vast fields. Franziska, its owner, used a government subsidy program to buy the farm some ten years earlier, when she moved to the countryside from the outer boroughs of Berlin. From sowing to composting, fertilizing, weeding, irrigating, reaping and packing, her organic, polycultural, sustainable plots of carrots, string beans, broccoli, herbs, eggplants, tomatoes, spinach, zucchini, lettuce, radishes, beets and berries were tended to by hand, using virtually no mechanized labor. In an arrangement dubbed Solawi (for solidarische Landeswirtschaft, “solidarity agriculture”) and reminiscent of cooperative farms in the U.S., residents of Berlin would pay a fixed fee, occasionally contribute a weekend workday, and in return regularly receive crates of seasonal produce. At the same time, Franziska marketed her crops over a hip internet plat- form designed to facilitate direct transactions between small sustainable farmers and individual, usually urban consumers seeking healthful, environmentally responsible, locally produced foods options. Orders placed on the platform could then be picked up at distribution points in Berlin, where, twice a week, Franziska would drive her packed station wagon and stand on the curb in the city’s most gentrified, alternative, progressive, and diverse neighborhoods to deliver the assorted produce to her clients.

Back at her cluttered farm kitchen, Franziska professed her sympathy for the political positions of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which she described as coming closest to her own views. She felt sufficiently at ease to voice plainly anti- Semitic and Islamophobic opinions, knowing full well that I was an Israeli Jew. It was only the AfD’s extremism, which she found too reminiscent of National Socialism, that deterred her from casting her vote for the party. Nevertheless, for Franziska, the AfD’s fervent anti-immigration stance—which catapulted the party from virtual insignificance to unprecedented political successes against the background of the European refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016—fused harmonically with their opposition to windfarms, which today dominate much of the Brandenburg country- side around her farm. Her notion of Heimat, as she described it to me, revolved around the monotonous topography of Brandenburg’s flatlands and the far, wide horizons toward which fields and forests ran undisturbed in every direction. The abrupt verticality of the towering wind turbines wounded that familiar landscape, scarring it with uncanny signs. Like the still-resented private takeover of previously collective farmland, she blamed the influx of windfarms on international conglomerates encroaching upon intimately familiar landscapes with the active complicity of national elites and mainstream politicians. “They don’t care about our souls,” Franziska said about the dominant political parties, which have heavily promoted wind energy in recent decades.

Franziska’s often conveyed her hostility to the bludgeoning blades of the turbines implicitly, through her careful attention to the flocks of birds that fluttered between feeding and resting grounds, ponds, fields and forests, and her regular commentary on their numbers and movements. Her concerns over the windfarms’ butchery of birds and landscapes alike accompanied other worries about the environmental crises manifest in free-falling insect populations, slumping biodiversity or invasive non-native species. In her discourse, she alternately juxtaposed diminishing native insect populations with invading foreign species, falling bird numbers with encroaching international capital and shrinking European demographics with the imagery of marauding, widely reproducing immigrants.

Such resonances between anxieties about demographic well-being, the resilience of Heimat across various scales and commitments to environmental sustainability and biodiversity are not unique to small-scale farmers who rely on climate-conscious urban consumers of health foods. Consider, for example, the astonishment with which the U.S. public responded to the figure of Jacob A. Chansley, also known as Qanon Shaman, who participated in the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Beyond his face paint, bare chest, Nordic-themed tattoos and horned fur hat, many seemed to find bewildering that, following his arrest, the yoga-practicing, far-right conspiracy theorist refused to eat the non-organic food that he was offered in jail.

These juxtapositions may appear dissonant to those who believe that environmentally conscious and politically progressive worldviews naturally coincide. Yet, as is well known, the fusion between fascism and concern for the health of both human bodies and nonhuman nature boasts a long his- tory, stretching back to National Socialism and before it. Today, we may find resonant overlaps in such places as Israel, where a formidable vegan, animal-rights movement has greenwashed occupation and Apartheid, and where some militant activists engage in daring direct action against industrial animal farming while supporting far-right politics. Readers may be more familiar with the case of rock star Morrissey, a longtime activist for animal rights and a passionate evangelist of veganism known for anti-immigrant remarks. In recent years, he has rallied behind Tommy Robinson, former member of the neofascist British National Party and former leader of the far-right Islamophobic English Defense League, as well as publicly supported the For Britain party, an anti-Islamist, anti-immigration, pro–animal rights splinter outfit of the radical fringes of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party.

Sometimes dubbed ecofascist, such emergent  political   formations   rearticulate nationalist politics in the language of climate politics, perhaps most insistently through talk of birthrates and overpopulation. In the discourse of Franziska, in the rhetoric of the AfD or in the public statements of Morrissey, a surging conflict between a localist environmentalism and a rising, green internationalism reveals itself. It reiterates many older struggles and tensions between chauvinist and cosmopolitan ideologies. Yet green chauvinism is not limited to the far-right fringes of the political map. It is equally at work in more euphemized incarnations, in the consumer environmentalism of many self-described progressives in wealthy countries and the moral high ground that they display toward the world’s poorer people and places. Such moralism diverts attention from the far more damaging environmental footprints of the wealthy as well as the exploitation of poorer places as dumping grounds for toxic waste and manufacturing zones with less stringent protections in place for laborers and lands. In Europe and beyond, these new political formations are adapting earlier languages of  nationalism to the present language of climate change, mediated through the fortification of affective attachments to notions of intimate locality, such as Heimat. That is, the politics of environmental sustainability may open paths that lead to rejuvenated, intensified nationalisms, even as they suggest potential futures that transcend the dangerous provincialism of national belonging.

Nitzan Shoshan is a sociocultural anthropologist and professor in El Centro de Estudios Sociológicos at El Colegio de México, Mexico City. His research has focused on nationalism and the far right in Germany and beyond, as well as on urban marginality  in  Mexico.  His prizewinning book The Management of Hate: Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-Wing Extremism (Princeton University Press, 2016) is an ethno- graphic study of young right-wing extremist groups in East Berlin.

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