Film screening: "The Blocher Experience"

Crisis Mirror is pleased to invite you to the screening of The Blocher Experience, a documentary film by Jean-Stéphane Bron, on Thursday, 24 April, at Støberiet (Blågårdsplads 3, 2200 KBH N), starting at 20.00.


The film offers an intimate portrait of Switzerland’s most controversial political leader, Christoph Blocher (b. 1940), under whose lead the Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, SVP) developed into a dominant force in Swiss politics with a significant influence over the country’s political agenda. For more than a decade now, the SVP has been Switzerland’s biggest party, which makes it also one of the most strongest and stabile right-wing populist organization in Europe.

Even if Blocher himself tends to deny his sympathy for the European extreme-right parties, it is obvious that the SVP’s success serves as a great source of both inspiration and admiration for other European right-wing organizations that also draw their popular support from xenophobic and anti-establishment attitudes with campaigns against immigration, Islam and the European Union.  

The recent Swiss referendum on restricting the number of immigrants from the EU – which never would have come to pass without the SVP’s campaign against “mass-immigration” that Blocher personally financed with 3 million Swiss francs –played right into the hands of the other European right-wing populist parties that are preparing for the coming European Parliamentary elections.

After the Swiss referendum populist politicians around Europe rushed to demand immigration quotas for their own countries as well. And the opinion polls tell that their demands echo popular attitudes. According to a German survey that was done right after the Swiss referendum, 48% of the Germans would support the similar policy in their own country. In the crisis-ridden Europe, the Swiss exclusionism has a clear appeal that both populist and extreme right-wing organizations are eager to utilize.

It is not, however, the current economic circumstances that explain entirely the growth of nationalism and xenophobia, strengthening of conservative values, and other social developments that are captured in the phenomenon of the right-wing populism. Already in early 1990s it was possible to observe how Europe was driven towards to a “silent counter-revolution”, as Piero Ignazi conceptualized it by complementing Ronald Inglehart’s idea of “silent revolution”.

In the beginning of the 1970s, Inglehart had observed that although the revolts of the 1960s were not able to overthrow the old order in the advanced industrial societies, they had set forth a broad transformation towards “post-bourgeois values” – especially among the middle-class youth. This change resulted gradually in opening the doors of the cabinets of power for population groups that previously were excluded from the political decision-making. It also provided a basis for new political groupings, such as the Green parties, that claimed to challenge the old left-right division.

But the “new politics” stimulated also a counter-reaction. The neo-conservatism had mainly remained underground or was channeled to the existing conservative parties before the mid-1980s, when the extreme right-wing parties had their first electoral victories. At first, their success was believed to be only temporary, but by the 1990s it had become clear that reactionary ideas had found a new political vehicle that was permanently changing the European political landscape. Blocher manages to capture neatly this development when he declared: “I’m the other side of the Sixties.”

Blocher’s political views had indeed taken shape during the late Sixties when he studied law in the University of Zürich. Together with like-minded fellow students he found an organization called Studentenring in order to fight the 1968 student movement and leftist influences in the university politics. In 1972 Blocher joined the SVP, which had been formed a year before, when the Party of Farmers, Traders and Independents (Bauern-, Gewerbe- und Bürgerpartei, BGB) merged with a fraction of the Democratic Party (Demokratische Partei, DP). Blocher’s organizational and media skills – together with his rapidly growing private wealth – acquired him soon public prominence and political success, which in turn helped him to restructure the party apparatus.

Under Blocher’s lead the SVP started to determinedly train its cadre for example by arranging courses on rhetoric and on media skills. This resulted soon in the level of professionalism yet uncommon in Swiss politics. The party differentiated itself from the traditional party politics also by entering into sort of permanent campaigning by arranging various grassroots activities on frequent basis.

Despite the thorough modernization of its apparatus and strategies, the SVP kept strongly relying on imagery it had inherited from its predecessors. To date, the traditionalist representations of rural life are still presented in its narratives and iconography as the authentic form of Swiss life – despite the fact that the number of people actually still making their living from agriculture has drastically diminished.

Since the mid-1980s, when it started to come apparent that the SVP was drifting further right, the traditionalist imagery has been increasingly contrasted with representations of foreign threats, posited mainly on the EU and immigrants. The renewed identitarian strategy hit the popular consciousness fully in 1992, when the SVP launched its first federal initiative under the title of “Against Illegal Immigration” and fought a successful campaign against the Switzerland’s membership in the European Economic Area (EEA).

The outcome of the EEA referendum was a real starting point for the SVP’s electoral and political success, but it also marked a crucial turn in Swiss politics in general. It sealed the debate on issues of European integration and EU membership for the coming decades. Although the SVP’s own initiative to restrict the right of asylum was eventually defeated, it pointed out the direction that Switzerland’s political agenda would develop on coming years.

As the electorate of the SVP has grown, it has also become more varied, and nowadays it can hardly be reduced to any specific social group. According to the surveys, the vast majority of its supporters are attracted to its exclusionist and nationalist ideas as well as its restrictive position on immigration and opposition to the EU. These themes have been central in party’s campaigns that have often been very provocative in style.

But the party’s real formula of success consists of linking the identitarian issues with neoliberal positions in economic and taxation policy. This connection has made the old farmer’s party an appealing choice also for the Swiss business elite. In this regard, the SVP is like a mirror image of its central figure, a man, who according to Jean-Stéphane Bron, has “a farmer’s body and a capitalist’s soul”.

While following Blocher on his campaign trail through the fall 2011, Bron tries to find out who actually is this industrialist and investor, who prefers to present himself as a politician with a common touch and understanding of problems, concerns and worries of the average folks – despite of his personal wealth of billions, his castle by Rhine and his huge art collection.

Also Blocher himself seems to be interested of the answer as he claims not to know himself. According to his own words, he’s a man of action, not contemplation. Perhaps it is indeed this lack of contemplation that allows Blocher to run his political agenda with a similar cynicism as his business investments:

With one hand, you sow fear. With the other hand, you harvest the political benefits.

By putting the blame on foreigners, you cash in on your investment. By accusing the elites of complicity, you double it. By making immigration a central theme of your politics, you offer an outlet for populist rage. One foot with the shareholders, the other with the farmers.

Watch the trailer