Imagined Realities (Austrian Style)

Picture courtesy of the FPÖ

In our previous chapter we considered the concept of fictional realities or imagined myths and how such stories bind people together and lead them to cooperate. So, as a follow up, and in the context of the forthcoming Austrian general election on the 15th October, here is an analysis of the inter-subjective realities emanating from the main political parties in 2017. For elucidation those six main parties are: the Freedom Party (FPÖ), the People’s Party (ÖVP renamed as “Liste Kurz” – The New Conservative Party), the Social Democrats (SPÖ), the Greens, the Neos (new Liberals) and Liste Pilz (after its founder, former Green, Peter Pilz).

The Freedom Party (FPÖ) – “Fairness

I am not sure if this is a calculated effort to appeal to the typical FPÖ supporter, but credit to everyone’s favourite right-wing party in Austria in keeping it simple. Yes, for Heinz Christian Strache (party leader) and his assorted goblins, their linguistic fiction screams Fairness! Fairness in the social system (only those who have paid in, not migrants or economic refugees); in taxes (high taxes mean expensive bureaucracies run by the Social Democrats and Conservatives); in inheritance rules (no inheritance tax for the rich); for women and children (the promotion of rights which do not contravene western democratic ideals); for Austrian pensioners (they should get more than any social payment to economic migrants); in culture, values and traditions (the debate around integration); borders (strong borders to keep out undesirables like terrorists, Islamists and Germans); and finally the EU (prioritising of Austrian citizens and not other EU states).

All of these are designed to promote, what the FPÖ cite as “an end to stalemate, in-fighting and false promises” and could conceivably be constituted as a story of progression. But reading between the not so disguised lines reveals a devotion to a fictional past. In essence it is all about social conservatism, central to which is a brake on integration, migration and societal change. Moreover, it is steeped in the protection of old money (inheritance tax only kicks in on assets over a million), the avowed protection of Austrians (this includes me) and a reigning back on further EU integration.

It is the purpose of opposition to question and hold ruling parties to account. To be fair to the FPÖ and its leader, as opposition members they have been both enthusiastic and vocal critics of the Grand Coalition of the last decade. But it is their repetitive tone of indignant whinging about the direction of sociopolitical life in Austria which makes me think that the central message of “fair” has all the hallmarks of the absurdity of Trump in the White House.

Complaining that everything is not fair when instead someone should point out that, yes, it is unfair that most Austrians have security, a place to live and a stable political and social system. Yes, it is unfair that there are free schools, healthcare, social order, democratic institutions, freedom, a free-press, a social contract, worker rights, generous welfare and environmental protection. And yes, it is unfair that we have the exclusive rights to the Wiener Schnitzel. Yet being what they are, the teenagers of Austrian politics, their answer would presumably be: but it’s still not fair.

So be warned. They talk about Austria and Austrians first but this is a party of liberalisation of markets, light-touch regulation and exclusion rather than inclusion. Somehow that story is lost between in the smog of fictitious rose-tinted bluster. But will people notice? Probably not.

The People’s Party (ÖVP) – “Österreich zurück an die Spitze

This is not the only message emanating from the rebranded Conservatives under Wunderkind Sebastian Kurz (part of this reset includes the ditching of the traditional party colour black for the touchy-feely colour of Turquoise, and the Theresa May-esque dropping of “ÖVP” to simply “Liste Kurz” to reduce associations with the insipid Conservatives of old) but the meaning and intent tells you all you need to know: It’s time to make Austria great again!

As an imagined myth designed to convince people to follow this brand of Conservatism, “back on top” means … what exactly? Certainly, it is a zippy and easy to digest and seeks to tug at the nationalistic emotions we know so well. But its boldness is its weakness. Because we if are take Austria to the top again, we need to know and understand when it was at the top last time. Put simply, when was this historical period when Austria chief dude? The nineteenth century Hapsburg Empire? Beating Germany in the 1978 World Cup? As Eurovision winners in 2015?

But of course it doesn’t really matter. In the fiction making business, it is of little consequence because many people have a poor grasp of history and can never remember what they were doing last week. All you need is to convince enough of the electorate that there was a period (never defined) when Austria was on top, much like a time when Britannia ruled the waves, America was great and David Hasselhoff was the “Hoff”, and you might just arouse enough nationalistic neurons to win an election. (I think I am beginning to see Harari’s point.)

What is certain is that the elevation of Kurz as party leader is a good example of the contradictions societies and nations face. On one side we have this youthful leader full of energy, modernity and hope for the future but when you dig deeper into the policies which are really driving his popularity (controls on migration, the protection of borders, talking tough on Turkey) his vision is essentially a pitch for the good old days, hence “back on top”. How he will reconcile this paradox remains to be seen. But it exposes a revealing theme in that centrist politics have shifted and with it social norms which will garner votes.

One of the easiest ways to pinch voters is to steal your opposition’s polices. By stepping up his rhetoric about migrants and refugees couching it with talk of the protection of borders and social cohesion where a free-ride was never part of the deal, Kurz has arguably out-manouvered the far-right FPÖ (this partly explains his ability to rapidly reverse the fortunes of the failing ÖVP since last year). Strict controls on immigration, therefore, are the new centre ground. The theme has been normalised as public attitudes have shifted although this is nothing new. The rights of same-sex couples is more or less accepted nowadays by all political factions except in, so to speak, the extremities. Although interestingly Kurz does not support same sex marriages in Austria, which means he must be compensating for something.

In any case, the latest poster to hit the streets utilises the immortal and highly original line of: “Jetzt. Oder Nie”. Elvis would have been proud.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ) – “Holen Sie sicht was Ihnen zusteht

With the outset of the election campaign back in the summer, the SPÖ rolled out their vision with the much discussed slogan of “Holen Sie sicht was Ihnen zusteht”. There are multiple ways to translate or indeed interpret this collection of words but it broadly means “take what you deserve”. In a sense it was a rallying call to the people of Austria that they should demand the best, in terms of access to social care, education, work, pensions and all the other facets of high-end cultures. It also hinted at fairer taxation in that taxes on “work” should be reduced to bring in more into line with the rest of Europe. But with less than two weeks to go to the election, the message settled on something much more resolute: “Zukunft” (future) and “Ehfahrung” (experience).

Such messages speak a lot about current leader Christian Kern’s “new deal” or more progressive attitudes towards politics in Austria. When he became Chancellor in May 2016 he spoke quite openly for the need of a change in the approach to coalition politics that had stalked the nation for years. That is not to say that Austria as a state couldn’t function in this mucho grando alliance. Clearly it did (and does) and became rich in doing so. It’s is just that the system had seemingly reached the point where political interests and needs could not be aligned with any expediency and people were calling out for a shake up.

Can Kern deliver this change? He is clearly the best leader of the SPÖ since the turn ofthe century (the 20th century) and his combination of business and political experience, his age, his sharp suits, not to mention his background (raised on a council estate), should make him the ideal candidate to take Austria forward.

But then along came Facebook, the “Silberstein affair” and “dirty campaigning” (a phrase which has entered into the lexicon of German). Buggering everything up and throwing Kern, the former head of the Austrian Railways, off the rails. Mud-slinging has ensued from both the SPÖ and ÖVP as each seeks to blame each other but the effect will simply cement in voter’s minds of the idiocy of continuing the Grand Coalition and push more voters to the FPÖ. Oh good.

The Greens – “Sei ein Mann: wahl eine Frau” (Be a man: vote for a woman)

I sometimes wonder what the real ideological difference is between the Green party and its big sister the SPÖ. They both believe in a strong social system, protection of workers, redistribution of income, regulation and environmental protection, are internationalist in their outlook and see managed migration as a force for good. But it is because they broadly agree on the fundamental structural needs on a modern nation that to position themselves as ideological distinctive, they are often left with a fictional narrative with largely niche appeal (and therefore irrelevant and too ideological intangible for your average Austrian burgher).

That said, aside from the SPÖ’s all encompassing “future”, the imagined realities and the slogans behind the Green campaign this time round seemingly offer the most concrete commitment for a society that seeks to enhance the contemporary with a need to look towards my retirement, sorry, the prospects for Austria. So we get many mentions of (all taking from their election advertising), Europe, the importance of kids, of politics for all people – not just Austrian nationals, justice, and my personal favourite a poster which extols us to be critical of the EU, but to stay in the EU (“Bleib Kritisch. Aber Bleib” – it means stay critical but stay in.)

It should be a captivating vision and it should energise people, especially the young. Yet it is my fear they are destined for the periphery this time round (a largely unknown and colourless leader is not helping) because, like it or not, Green politics will always struggle to penetrate the current fetish for those who desire a myth or story or ideological fiction in response to the fear that established cultural values and social norms are under siege.

What they need perhaps is something bigger, something more challenging requiring inter-nation cooperation the likes of which we have never seen. A global issue so great and so encompassing that it will trounce the national and fictionalised past “glories” and unify people with a common aim. No I am not talking about Conchita for head of the United Nations, namely a nasty bout of extreme weather and a dose of climate change. Perhaps then the green message will no longer be lost in the fog, assuming there is anyone left to care.

The Neos (The New Austria and Liberal Forum) “Weil die Perspektive den Menschen zählt

Like Kurz over at Liste-Kurz headquarters, The Neos are caught in an unfortunate paradox. This highlights the danger of cherry-picking ideas from every strain of politics and trying to shape them into a cohesive vision (or story). The slogan above means “Because the perspective of people counts” but their central ideology is based on “freedom and responsibility”. But again, are these not at odds? They want freedom but they tell me it comes with responsibilities. This is not freedom. It’s like trying to be a parent and a pre-parent. Before the kids come along you have no responsibilities except to yourself (and wider society if you believe in such things). But once the sleepless nights kick in and you discover the narrative of the nappy, you quickly reassess what it really means to exercise freedom in the sense you knew before.

And so herein lies their problem: they want to be everyone’s buddy. To essentially hedge their bets and marry many different ideologies with some pink balloons to soften the impact in the hope something will stick. They assert “new chances” and “new perspectives” (at least the new part is progressive) but equally they exhort freedom in business but a better deal for workers. Contradictions aside, they are the kinds of people who probably think Uber and the “sharing economy” are the future basis for mankind (very liberal and seeped in rule breaking). Why? because they are cool, man.

In any case, Mathias Strolz, their leader could never become chancellor. There is much to admire in his enthusiasm, energy and eloquence but I can’t help thinking this is because he is compensating for his lack of height. I cannot see him as the captain of a team (he doesn’t have the natural poise and gravitas, although as we have seen around the World this is not necessarily a prerequisite for high office) rather more as the entertainments officer, jollying everyone up, whacking out the tequila and leading the march to the dancefloor. Which, when I think about it, is a story I can relate to.

Liste Pilz – “Gerechtigkeit, Sicherheit und Schutz unserer Freiheit

Peter Pilz is the Bernie Sanders of Austrian politics. A political veteran (more or less discarded from the higher echelons for the Green Party) who has positioned himself outside the mainstream with simple messages chipping away at vested interests and the status quo. His headline is “Justice, security and protection of our freedoms” which translates as: challenging the fiction of neo-liberalism where politics should once again exist for the Mensch (people), not banks or corporations; justice for all people, in work, wages and life chances; reform of schools, social care, fair tax policy, integration of all peoples and fighting corruption and extremism.

His appeal is difficult to pin down. But he is clearly a wise head with traditional ideas of equality and justice for all. It is a perfect vision in which to end and if I could vote I would seriously consider the imagined myth of the guy in a scruffy jacket. In the meantime, I am off to investigate my local party. Yes, in an effort to tackle the major issues in my district – see if we can get my German neighbour deported – I have joined the SPÖ. This may prove to be a mistake especially as I am breaking my most immutable of rules: that is never again joining an organisation which has a committee. That said, perhaps they need a Entertainments Coordinator with an intimate knowledge of the story of the imagined realities of tequila (although that hangover in Mexico in 1996 was far from invented). Arriba, Genosse!

© 2017 RJ Barratt

Ps – This made me laugh. Campaign poster from the SPÖ in 2006. Notice the prominent word.