Fear Eats the Soul. Ruth Wodak’s The Pol­i­tics of Fear

Far-right pop­ulist pol­i­tics have arrived in the main­stream. We are now wit­ness­ing the shame­less nor­mal­iza­tion of a polit­i­cal dis­course built around nation­al­ism, xeno­pho­bia, racism, sex­ism, anti­semitism and Islam­o­pho­bia. But what does this change mean? What caused it? And how does far-right pop­ulist dis­course work? Ruth Wodak’s sec­ond edi­tion of her best-sell­ing book the Pol­i­tics of Fear address­es those ques­tions and offers an updat­ed dis­cus­sion on “nor­mal­iza­tion” as well as a whole new chap­ter explor­ing the chal­lenges to lib­er­al democracy.

In this com­men­tary orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for the IWM in Vien­na, Miloš Vec reviews Wodak’s sec­ond edi­tion of The Pol­i­tics of Fear.

Fear Eats the Soul

There are sev­er­al fea­tures I sim­ply love in Ruth Wodak’s work. The recent­ly issued sec­ond edi­tion of The Pol­i­tics of Fear. The Shame­less Nor­mal­iza­tion of Far-Right Dis­course (SAGE 2021) is a bril­liant exam­ple of what I admire in her aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing. Prob­a­bly the most com­pelling qual­i­ty for me is the engage­ment of its many the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cours­es with prac­ti­cal evi­dence. All of her claims and the­ses are very clear­ly elab­o­rat­ed and then backed with rich, recent empir­i­cal evi­dence, includ­ing not only quotes from a vast vari­ety of lit­er­ary gen­res but also visu­al sources like posters, pho­tographs, media screen­shots, and car­toons. All this is sup­port­ed by a typog­ra­phy and lay­out that make it extreme­ly easy to fol­low the line of argu­men­ta­tion and the use of detailed exam­ples. I can­not recall any oth­er book from the field of dis­course analy­sis that appealed as much to me in its style.

“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is the title of a famous 1974 West Ger­man movie by direc­tor Rain­er Wern­er Fass­binder. Its orig­i­nal Ger­man title, “Angst essen Seele auf,” is lin­guis­ti­cal­ly clear about the mod­i­fi­ca­tion of Ger­man gram­mar by a non-native speak­er – the mean­ing intend­ed would be expressed more cor­rect­ly as “Die Angst isst die Seele auf.” This is impor­tant as the movie depicts an unhap­py love affair between a young North African immi­grant and a mid­dle-aged Ger­man woman. The very uncon­ven­tion­al cou­ple is faced with over­whelm­ing rejec­tion and destruc­tive hatred in 1970s Munich (the 1972 Munich Olympics mas­sacre plays an explic­it role with regard to the per­cep­tion of Arabs). One can only imag­ine how Fass­binder, who died in 1982, would have per­ceived today’s polit­i­cal cli­mate and the dis­course about migra­tion and migrants. Already the shift in which sub­ject feels fear is strik­ing. In Fassbinder’s movie it is the Arab migrant who for­mu­lates the icon­ic state­ment “Fear Eats the Soul” where­as today’s far-right politi­cians talk about the fears of the imag­ined com­mu­ni­ty of “authen­tic” peo­ple – and keep qui­et about those oth­ers who have expe­ri­enced ter­ri­fy­ing things.

Clear­ly, ‘fear’ is not only a topos in the clas­sic writ­ings of polit­i­cal the­o­ry but also lever­age for polit­i­cal actors.

Such fears, often with xeno­pho­bic and racist under­cur­rents, have many sources and mul­ti­ple out­comes. As a jurist, I am par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the inter­faces between social man­ners, reli­gion, moral­i­ty, and legal reg­u­la­tions. From the point of view of soci­ol­o­gy of law, there are many pos­si­ble inter­ac­tions between those fields. “Multi­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty” is a poten­tial the­o­ret­i­cal frame for detailed inves­ti­ga­tions about con­flicts, coex­is­tence, and coop­er­a­tion between dif­fer­ent types of norms, and his­to­ry gives abun­dant evi­dence about such com­plex rela­tions. Fur­ther­more, with its “emo­tion­al turn,” his­to­ri­og­ra­phy has been giv­en addi­tion­al per­spec­tives for a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the role of emo­tions in polit­i­cal devel­op­ments. Clear­ly, “fear” is not only a topos in the clas­sic writ­ings of polit­i­cal the­o­ry but also lever­age for polit­i­cal actors. In Wodak’s study, far-right pop­ulists transna­tion­al­ly try to use fears they are pro­vok­ing for their agenda.

“The pol­i­tics of fear” is rich with exam­ples of how dis­cours­es not only mobi­lize imag­ined threats to ini­ti­ate leg­is­la­tion but also legit­imize attacks on exist­ing insti­tu­tions and the rule of law. The book’s main claim (and moral accu­sa­tion) can be found in the tit­u­lar phrase “shame­less nor­mal­iza­tion”: a shift is tak­ing place with the extrem­ist tools, lan­guage, and polit­i­cal agen­da of the far right mov­ing from the periph­ery to the cen­ter, sup­port­ed by main­stream con­ser­v­a­tive par­ties. Although these should be regard­ed as non-nor­mal and unac­cept­able, they have become per­ceived as legit­i­mate and rea­son­able in a num­ber of laws, dis­cours­es, and reg­u­la­to­ry fields, shift­ing the bound­aries of nor­mal­i­ty and the unsayable.

A recur­rent pat­tern of inter­ac­tion seems to be that far-right politi­cians evoke dubi­ous or even false images of exter­nal­ly locat­ed threats to spe­cif­ic parts of the pop­u­la­tion; the draw­ing of bound­aries plays an essen­tial role. If they are suc­cess­ful (and they often are), a “secu­ri­ti­za­tion” through state insti­tu­tions takes place: new laws or rules emerge that promise to keep away those par­tic­u­lar threats from the “authen­tic” peo­ple. How­ev­er, it turns out very soon that the mea­sures tak­en are often dys­func­tion­al. Even more reveal­ing, the leg­isla­tive bod­ies and the admin­is­tra­tion often have no ambi­tion to enforce them. In oth­er words, they are “sym­bol­ic leg­is­la­tion,” a tool of polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion to dis­guise real and fal­la­cious ambi­tions on many lev­els. Try­ing to make cit­i­zens believe that par­lia­ments and elect­ed politi­cians care about present chal­lenges, they only sim­u­late effec­tive mea­sures through laws that are dys­func­tion­al (as the solu­tion is not based on any sub­stan­tive under­ly­ing prob­lem analy­sis) and nev­er enforced. This kind of leg­is­la­tion is only pow­er­ful as a mes­sage in polit­i­cal interaction.

The inter­play of moral­i­ty, social con­ven­tions, and the law cross­es lines der­mar­cat­ing what has been before pos­si­ble to say and what has not.

For this kind of sym­bol­ic leg­is­la­tion, the shift through “shame­less nor­mal­iza­tion” is very impor­tant. As leg­is­la­tion and admin­is­tra­tion restrict indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive lib­er­ties while promis­ing to pro­mote “secu­ri­ty,” spe­cif­ic jus­ti­fi­ca­tions are required for the “new nor­mal” lev­el of restric­tions. Very often such jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for trad­ing lib­er­ty for secu­ri­ty  not only manip­u­late facts and causal­i­ties, but also cross bor­ders in the dis­course. There­fore, the inter­play of moral­i­ty, social con­ven­tions, and the law cross­es lines der­mar­cat­ing what has been before pos­si­ble to say and what has not.

Wodak’s book fre­quent­ly refers to the idea of “taboo” and its trans­gres­sion in polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In the chap­ter on “Pro­tect­ing Bor­ders and the Peo­ple: The Pol­i­tics of Exclu­sion,” Wodak states that “shame­less­ness and shame­less nor­mal­iza­tion become appar­ent when taboos in regard to con­ven­tion­al rules of polite­ness and respect are delib­er­ate­ly bro­ken, when delib­er­a­tive dia­logue is reject­ed and the so-called ‘con­ver­sa­tion­al’ max­ims are flout­ed.” (p. 91) She then adds: “the shame­less trans­gres­sion of con­ven­tions and break­ing of taboos has become accept­able and – indeed – nor­mal­ized.” (p. 94)

Exam­ples of such trans­gres­sions can be seen in the case of Aus­tria in the cal­cu­lat­ed ambiva­lence of state­ments by Bar­bara Rosenkranz chal­leng­ing the con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance of the Ver­bots­ge­setz of 1947. What is being ques­tioned is not only a legal cod­i­fi­ca­tion but tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing the con­sti­tu­tion that embod­ies Austria’s post-World War II iden­ti­ty as a demo­c­ra­t­ic repub­lic emerg­ing from de-naz­i­fi­ca­tion, oppos­ing any attempt to reestab­lish a fas­cist regime and thus ban­ning accord­ing­ly cer­tain types of polit­i­cal actions and speech. The idea of “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” refers to moral stan­dards in rhetor­i­cal con­ven­tions. It tells us who we are, and it is no coin­ci­dence that Wodak uses the term in a non-iron­ic man­ner. (p. 151) As she argues, it has increas­ing­ly gained a polem­i­cal dimen­sion and is used to dele­git­imize efforts to main­tain polit­i­cal lan­guage with­in a frame that is very often drawn from his­toric expe­ri­ences of dis­crim­i­na­tion and persecution.

There is a lot of pres­sure and dis­ap­point­ing­ly lit­tle defense not only through but also of legal reg­u­la­tions and insti­tu­tions against the attacks of extremists.

In all the fields of dis­course about the nation­al and his­toric iden­ti­ty of polit­i­cal enti­ties such as states or munic­i­pal­i­ties, extrem­ist offens­es are delib­er­ate­ly com­mit­ted and seek to nor­mal­ize defama­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Since the days of Fassbinder’s movie, the dis­course on immi­gra­tion has not lost its func­tion as a reli­able indi­ca­tor of how civ­il stan­dards can be tram­pled under foot by wealthy soci­eties, and how indi­vid­u­als may harm par­tic­u­lar­ly those who are already in a weak or even des­per­ate eco­nom­ic, legal, or social posi­tion. Wodak seems to be not very opti­mistic about a poten­tial pos­i­tive role laws and courts could play to counter this. Ana­lyz­ing one spe­cif­ic court case that end­ed with an acquit­tal, she con­cludes that “the lack of legal con­se­quences seems to con­firm that ‘any­thing goes’, anoth­er exam­ple of shame­less nor­mal­iza­tion.” (p. 25) Even politi­cians of the Aus­tri­an Green par­ty “who had always cam­paigned for human rights and lib­er­al val­ues, have now accept­ed far-right poli­cies that they had pre­vi­ous­ly vehe­ment­ly opposed.” (p. 62) Thus,  there is a lot of pres­sure and dis­ap­point­ing­ly lit­tle defense not only through but also of legal reg­u­la­tions and insti­tu­tions against the attacks of extremists.

The attacks on the con­sti­tu­tion­al sys­tem of checks and bal­ances imply that those, as well as (parts of) the press, are still bul­warks against the abol­ish­ment of lib­er­al democ­ra­cies and their val­ues as embod­ied in frag­ile con­sti­tu­tions. Wodak’s empha­sis on the mutu­al depen­den­cy between legal pro­vi­sions and moral fun­da­men­tals or polit­i­cal man­ners under­lines the need to pro­tect also non-legal norms if we want to keep legal insti­tu­tions work­ing as intend­ed. What is more, the enforce­ment of exist­ing reg­u­la­tions against dis­crim­i­na­tion and hate speech has to be tak­en more seri­ous­ly than ever. It should not be deci­sive how many con­vic­tions or acquit­tals are reached in tri­als deal­ing with cas­es of hate speech and dis­crim­i­na­tion – just the com­mu­ni­ca­tion about exist­ing legal pro­hi­bi­tions and their under­ly­ing val­ues has impact.

How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to bear in mind that all polit­i­cal actors try to mobi­lize legal pro­ce­dures in favor of their polit­i­cal goals, that law can often com­mu­ni­cate unin­tend­ed mes­sages, and that tri­als may have para­dox­i­cal con­se­quences. These risks are also a result from the auton­o­my of law and con­tribute to its emi­nent func­tions in mod­ern states. This might be a slight­ly unsat­is­fac­to­ry insight, but we have to be aware that even polem­i­cal dis­cours­es and legal bat­tles over the legit­i­ma­cy of such attacks con­tribute in very tricky ways to a work­ing democracy.

This com­men­tary has been repub­lished with the kind per­mis­sion of the Insti­tute of Human Sci­ences (IWM) in Vienna.


Miloš Vec

Miloš Vec is Professor of Legal History at the University of Vienna and was a Permanent Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) (2016-2020).