An Unexpected Contrast between Albania and the Netherlands Dutch fascist leader Thierry Baudet

This morning I woke up to the news that the fascist Forum for Democracy party of Thierry Baudet had become the second largest party in the Netherlands, and the largest party in my home province, South-Holland. Let me clarify directly that I use the adjective “fascist” here in a precise way, following the definition of Philippe Laoue-Labarthe in Heidegger, Art, and Politics: “Fascism is […] the mobilization of the identificatory emotions of the masses.” In what follows, we should take this definition together with another observation made by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility,” namely that fascism practices the “aestheticizing of politics.”

I have frequently analyzed the estheticizing tendencies of Edi Rama’s form of politics, which has provided a complete rethinking of the means of political propaganda by appropriating a specific contemporary art movement, relational aesthetics, as a visual language. The consequences of this appropriation became clearly visible during the opposition protests. This goes hand in hand with Rama’s use of the romantic stereotype of the “free” and “expressive” artist to mask what are in the end rather typical autocratic impulses and a government based on large-scale crime and corruption. That this feint is no longer working may be gathered from the recent international responses to his regime.

Yet, even though Rama’s artistic work is arguable of little relevance in the current art world – at most a fun curiosity because of the political office of its creator – it cannot be denied that his career is moderately successful. He is represented by multiple galleries in Europe and US, which suggests that at least based on market valuation, there is something there. In other words, Rama is no dilettante, and to all appearances, he takes his artwork as serious as he takes himself, no matter how misguided he may be.

In other words, even though Rama may have estheticized specific aspects of his political practice, the two domains of politics and art are still clearly distinct, and the schizophrenic consequences are something he and all other inhabitants of Albania have to deal with on a daily basis. Rama may behave like an autocrat, but he is certainly no fascist. In spite of his raves against the “trashcan media” and occasional hints at unification with Kosovo, he has never, to refer back to Lacoue-Labarthe’s definition, mobilized “the identificatory emotions of the masses.” To my knowledge, he has never called upon one (ethnic, national, religious) group to rise up against the “other,” no doubt aware of the disastrous consequences this has had in the Western Balkans region in the past. Furthermore, the type of art mobilized by Rama is completely incompatible with any form of straightforward fascist politics; the movement he aligns himself with is eminently cosmopolitan, relativistic, and ironic. And for this, we ought be thankful, very thankful.

Because when we find in a politician the combination of (failed) artistic ambitions with precisely that desire to rally a population under a single identifying force, a single “us” against a monolithic “them,” we have a recipe for disaster. And this disaster emerged in the Netherlands yesterday night in the figure of Thierry Baudet. This is not the first time such a figure appears on the scene; we have seen similar politicians since the beginning of the century, such as Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders. Fortuyn played the intellectual, while Wilders claimed to hate them. In Baudet we see these two positions combined. He plays the cultured, enlightened, intellectual, white, heterosexual man while disdaining all others.

One of the first actions of Baudet when he entered Parliament was to move his baby grand piano into his office. This event was broadcast by national television. As with Rama installing the Parreno and Höller works next to the Prime Ministry and hiring contemporary architects to redo his office, this first gesture said everything about the esthetic and political direction he would take. Rama imported symbols of avantgarde contemporary art practices to signal a cosmopolitan outlook that would resonate well with the educated international elite. Baudet imported the consummate product of “classical” Western culture, the most elaborate, heavy, and expensive piece of musical furniture, the grand piano. A product, I should say, that already in the 1960s had been subjected to a complete deconstruction by the Fluxus art movement – but here it was again in the center of Dutch politics, the shining black coffin of “Western civilization.”

To complete the picture, Baudet let himself be photographed, lounging awkwardly on its closed lid, pressing a single key with the index finger of his right hand as if receiving some divine spark from the lifeless ivory. The photograph is a perfect image of the estheticization of politics, of a banality so overwhelming that it stupefies the senses.

Baudet makes a point of exhibiting his love for romantic piano music, for example when posting an old video recording of himself on Youtube, where he can be heard butchering Chopin’s Ballade no. 3. The  barely controlled way of playing, the exaggerated gesticulations, the missed notes, the ridiculous outfit – all of this screams dilettante. (Listen here to a proper execution of the same piece, to clean your ears.)  I immediately had to think of Wallace Stevens’s lines from “Esthétique du mal”:

“Livre de Toutes Sortes de Fleurs D’Après Nature.
All sorts of flowers. That’s the sentimentalist.
When B. sat down at the piano and made
A transparence in which we hear music, made music,
In which we heard transparent sounds, did he play
All sorts of notes? Or did he play only one
In an ecstasy of its associates,
Variations in the tones of a single sound,
The last, or sounds so single they seemed one?”

I hope I will be forgiven for citing the entire verse, but it is indeed the case that in B.’s “all sorts of notes” we can hear a “single sound.” And that is the sound of a sentimental fascism. Baudet hearkens back to all the cliches we know from historical fascism: he tweets about the “terrors” of contemporary art, talks about “cultural suicide” (of the West) because of immigration, shouts that climate change is a secular “theology” worshiping an “idol,” riles up his followers against journalists, scholars, and artists, proclaims to defend a strong nation state against “international elites,” and consistently spreads hate and distrust against immigrants.

Even so (and unsurprisingly), Baudet comes himself from a family of immigrants, who fled in the 18th century for the French military conscription. His ancestor Pierre Joseph Baudet arrived in the Netherlands as a Belgian refugee. Even so, he himself is a product of the Dutch university system, where he received a PhD in Law at my alma mater, Leiden University. Even so, he himself flaunts with everything that smells of “elite.”

Baudet shows off his shallow, but superficially impressive, knowledge of the Western canon. He started one of his first speeches in Parliament by citing Cicero’s First Catiline Oration with a cringeworthy Dutch accent (it’s the thing you learn in Latin class in high school). His victory speech, yesterday night, started with Hegel’s famous quip “The Owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk” (to be found on every philosophy quotes website) before then interpreting this “dusk” as the “dusk” of Western civilization, which, of course, is a direct reference to The Decline of the West, the famous work of reactionary and racist author Oswald Spengler. I cite from Baudet’s speech:

“We are standing here tonight, literally at the last moment, among the ruins of what was once the greatest and most beautiful civilization the world has ever known. A civilization that spanned all corners of the world, that was full of confidence and that has brought us the most beautiful architecture, music and art that has ever existed under the starry sky. But just like all other countries of our Boreal world, we are being destroyed by the very who were supposed to protect us.”

This is precisely what Lacoue-Labarthe means with “mobilization of the identificatory emotions of the masses.” A mobilization of “us” against “them” based on an grandiose and ahistorical feeling of Western civilization, of the “Boreal world,” which is a literal reference to “Hyperborea,” a Greek concept appropriated by German Nazi Heinrich Himmler as the mythical origin of the Aryan race. Did I call Baudet a racist yet? Maybe I should. I mean, how many people reference a Nazi leader in their victory speech? Some more:

“But we have been called to the front, because we have to, because our country needs us. We are the product of 300,000 year of evolution, we have survived multiple ice ages, we have killed mammoths, we are inheritors of the greatest civilization that has ever existed.”

How to counter this? How to write against such delusions? How to undo the damage of mediocre falsehoods, cheap rhetorics, and an all-consuming fantasy of greatness and divine purpose? These are questions we are faced with on a daily basis, the answers to which are unfortunately complex, layered, and often ambiguous. Baudet, and other fascists like him, provide quasi-clarity in a world that often resists interpretation and fosters an existential doubt and constant discomfort. Our world is truly a Gombrowiczian world, and this is, understandably, hard to bear. But in Baudet, there is no doubt. He believes only in the “variations in the tones of a single sound.” And even if masked as a botched performance of Chopin’s Ballade No. 3, that sound is the sound of marching boots, departing trains, and terrified screams in the dead of night.

– Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei