“Evil is real. We cannot deny its reality without diminishing the basic seriousness of existence and thus falling into a kind of nonsense, a dreadful buffoonery.” – Gabriel Marcel
In the movie ‘38 – Vienna Before the Fall, set in the last days before the Anschluss, a German singer and actress named Carola Hell (Played by Sunnyi Melles.) who has risen to fame in Austria returns to Berlin after a years long absence to accept the honor of giving a performance to an audience of elite Germans of the self-styled Third Reich.
The first night back in Germany, Carola visits her favorite restaurant from years past and orders “bouillon.” The waiter remembers her with affection and says he will bring it right away, but that she must know it is now called “clear soup.” Foreign words, he tells her, especially French words, are not allowed under the Nazi regime.
Before her return to Berlin, Carola and her Jewish lover Martin, a renowned playwright in Vienna, are warned by a journalist friend to leave Austria because the Nazis will soon come to power intent on implementing a pogrom against Austrian Jews. Determined to avoid the nasty politics of the day, they dismiss their friend’s dire warnings, ignoring clear signs of the new regime’s lethal malevolence as they continue to focus on their work and personal happiness.
The audience, armed with knowledge of history, knows the danger is real and cheers Carola’s last minute escape, arranged by her lover in Vienna, even as his fate is sealed by the Anschluss.
The movie became Austria’s first ever nominee for Best Foreign Film at the 1987 Oscars. A review from the time described the film’s mission “to explore the inaction of a people when their culture, their lifestyle — their very lives — are in imminent danger.”
Are we living in 1938 Vienna?
WESTERN ELITES OPT FOR FORCE
In his latest Substack newsletter, Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award winning investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald surveys the political upheavals of the past decade in putative Western democracies and describes a “dissent-eliminating framework…based in the central recognition that there is mass, widespread anger and even hatred toward the neoliberal ruling class throughout the West.”
Rather than make even “symbolic concessions,” Greenwald says that “Western neoliberal elites have instead opted for force, a system that crushes all forms of dissent as soon as they emerge in anything resembling an effective, meaningful or potent form.”
I agree with Greenwald’s analysis, but there is also an alarming undercurrent of political passivity and acquiescence in the face of the newly virulent “dissent-eliminating framework.”
This is due in part to what Eitan Hersh of Tufts University describes as the devolution of citizenship into “political hobbyism,” in which everyone is a spectator, an armchair quarterback, a partisan fan picking a favorite candidate-product.
In this consumerist Super Bowl version of democracy, with its elite funded $14.4 billion virtual election spectacles, citizen-driven civil society anchored in genuine political agency has atrophied, with elections functioning like the lingering neural spasms of a long amputated limb.
TINA DEMANDS CLEAR SOUP
In July 2016, I published an article in English and Spanish tracing the roots of the infamous and still operative TINA (There Is No Alternative) doctrine of Western neoliberal inevitability first propounded by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s.
I noted with alarm that as this ideology has become dominant among elites, “Western political life…has devolved into a series of increasingly desperate and inchoate reactions against a sense of fatal historical entrapment.” Rather than producing meaningful reform, I thought these populist outbreaks were likely to “…instead be exploited by fascistic nationalist demagogues and turned into a dangerous search for political scapegoats.”
During the 18 months before global COVID lockdowns began in March 2020, political upheaval was convulsing neoliberal governments across the world.
This wave of popular uprisings is just the latest manifestation of an ongoing revolt that has been shaking the wobbly foundations of globalized post-Cold War capitalism since at least 2008, leaving elites scrambling to find ways to contain the upheaval. While the specific causes of revolt vary in each country, all have in effect been rejecting the TINA doctrine of inevitability, with people rising up with increasing populist vehemence at the ballot box and in the streets.
The speed and ease with which this popular democratic rebellion was suspended worldwide under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic was like a godsend for global elites, who were suddenly inoculated from the virus of popular opinion by a public health emergency.
The predicted second outbreak of greatest concern will not be epidemiological, but political.
And here we are, on the cusp of war with Russia over Ukraine; about to enter the third year of an officially mandated pandemic with yet another scary new post-Omicron Covid variant being advertised as reason to continue a global public health emergency; and overtly autocratic regimes on the march across the neoliberal West.
The construction of a permanent state of emergency by Western elites over the past two decades, from a never ending war on terror to the medicalized tyranny of the Covid pandemic, offers “a convenient shortcut to authoritarianism” for a failing global order.
The anti-democratic tide cannot be turned back by citizens who are divided over whether their thin daily broth should be called “bouillon” or “clear soup.”