The new fascism in Europe

Across Europe, quality of life is dropping, providing fertile ground for the far right

Stephen Marche
The new fascism


The new fascism

Ahead of the June 17 elections in Greece, Athens was the scene of a gruesome nostalgia trip. The ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party took to holding torchlit parades through the streets. The party rejects the term neo-Nazi, but there’s little doubt about its source of inspiration. Their symbol, the twisting maeander, is highly reminiscent of a swastika; they send teams of threatening young men into the streets wearing black shirts; their leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, specializes in flamboyant, melodramatic fist-shaking speeches, awash in self-pity; and several prominent members have openly approved of Hitler. These are not fringe figures in the Greek political landscape anymore. During the last legislative election, barely a month ago, they managed to take seven per cent of the vote. This time around they earned 6.92 per cent.

They are not unique to Greece. Just as the 1970s gave rise to a slew of European left-wing terrorists in the wake of turbulent social and economic change in the 1960s, so the failure of globalization is inevitably coughing up a new breed of fascism across the Continent.

The Great Recession has clarified underlying trends that were at work before the crash of 2008. The ranks of the European far right no longer come from the underprivileged and marginalized but from the middle class, the group most threatened by the inevitable outcome of globalization: rising inequality. The political centre has failed to acknowledge a simple reality. Integrated markets have not helped ordinary people in Europe. The globalized economy has seen a huge spike in productivity and GDP. In the decade before the crash, the Irish growth rate hovered around five per cent annually and in Spain around four per cent. But the benefits of that expansion have not been shared by all. Stagnant wages combined with inflation led to a decrease of middle-class purchasing power throughout the decade before 2008. That year, a German study showed a marked decrease in the number of workers who fell between 70 to 150 per cent of the median income—from 62 per cent in 2000 to 54 per cent in 2008. The middle class has found only deepening insecurity and a decrease in social mobility. A decline in the European standard of living is almost inevitable at this point. Children will almost certainly lead poorer lives than their parents.

The only parties that speak to the failure of economic integration to improve the lives of ordinary Europeans are ultra-nationalistic. Both sides of the political centre are to blame in the current situation and neither seems to have a workable solution. Socialism from the centre-left created burdensome deficits before the recession; countries competed for the most outrageous entitlement programs despite sky-high debt-to-GDP ratios. (The French may have won with postnatal training in vaginal exercises). As Theodoros Pangalos, the former Socialist deputy prime minister, said, “We ate the money together.” Post-recession, the centre-right’s austerity plan has failed to create investor confidence, and led to a double-dip recession. Their ideology is equally inflexible and ineffective.

The legitimacy of recent neo-fascist movements is what makes them infinitely more terrifying than the leftist terrorists of an earlier era who wreaked havoc in Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere. The nightmare of European fascism has never been entirely extinguished, but for the most part hard-line nationalism has, until recently, been a sociopathic residue of European politics, a self-consciously futile and anarchistic project. The new fascists are organized and sensible, with their eyes firmly set on controlling the machinery of the state rather than destroying it. They are policemen and bankers rather than students and workers. In Germany, political commentators noticed a shift in tone rather than substance—one from stiefelnazis, or “boot Nazis,” to kravattennazis or “tie Nazis.” Many nations in Europe have an expanding hard-right party, which points to a larger phenomenon. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is consistently a leading party in national elections. France’s Marine Le Pen of National Front received six million votes in the recent election. Hungary’s Jobbik party proudly displays a symbol suspiciously similar to the war-era Arrow Cross and won 17 per cent of the vote in 2010. Even the Scandinavian countries—once beacons for tolerance and openness—are susceptible. Norway’s far right has defended mass-murderer Anders Breivik’s views on Islam.

The underlying reasons for this spasm of hatred are obvious. The unemployment rate in Greece is 22 per cent. In Spain, it’s even higher, at 24 per cent. Youth unemployment tops 22 per cent for the entire European Union. The classic explanation for the rise of fascism in the 1930s was severe economic crisis and poverty. But hard-right parties have been prominent since well before the current economic crisis, although their messages have become much more mainstream since. The current explosion of racism and xenophobia is rooted in a more profound rejection of the open flow of money and people. All the ultra-nationalist parties are against the EU as an idea and in practice. In all of these parties, hatred of Jews is an ancient theme, an old song dragged out for the old-timers; their current preoccupation is hatred for Muslim immigrants and the Roma, vulnerable symbols of human mobility. Jobbik has organized “civic guards” to go on “civil activist strolls” in towns with large Roma populations; such euphemisms should be familiar to any student of European history.

In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama proposed that the global struggle of competing ideological systems had come to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whenever dramatic events have followed—Sept. 11, 2001, or the Iraq war or the rise of the Chinese economy—the idea has taken a thrashing. His theory nonetheless has a tendency to bounce back. Many of us want to believe that liberal democracy is the only sensible political ideology, and that the various insanities of the 20th century ultimately resulted in that revelation. Fukuyama assumed democratic systems would be able to work through internal contradictions, and the capacity of voters to throw out their political masters would correct the most egregious economic mismanagement. Twenty years after the book’s publication, Europe finally seems to be about to prove The End of History wrong. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Fukuyama questioned his own idea. “Can liberal democracy survive the decline of the middle class?” he wondered. The corrosive effect of the global flow of money around national borders, and around the capacity for any elected government to regulate it, is proving too strong.

Democratic institutions began imploding before any neo-fascists came to real power. The failure of the political class and the threat of unbearable punishment from the bond market has led, in some cases, to the imposition of unelected officials, as with the appointment of Mario Monti in Italy. The technocrats’ solution to the deepening crisis is simple and elegantly self-serving: they need more power. The Economist sees a great opportunity in the crisis for European integrationists: “A consensus is slowly emerging that, whether a Greek exit is to be averted or weathered, there will have to be a greater level of integration in the eurozone, with tighter constraints on the freedom of national governments.” The European Commission and the IMF define lack of accountability. The failure of their policies calling for painful austerity measures in Greece has had no consequences. Who can fire them??This situation presents a question that makes sense to more people than just fascists: what is the value of democracy if it is incapable of determining the economic system of its people?

Financier George Soros, in a recent speech, declared his fear that the European Union is becoming “a German empire with the periphery as the hinterland.” Ultra-nationalism at least provides a kind of resistance to this future. The resistance is grotesque and violent, however. Michaloliakos, in his speech after the May election, shouted, “The new gold dawn of Hellenism is rising. For those who betray this country, the time has come for fear. We are coming!” A time of fear may well be coming. In a televised debate on Greek television, a spokesman for Golden Dawn, Ilias Kasidiaris, stood up in the middle of a typical televised roundtable, threw a glass of water in the face of one female opponent and then began roughly slapping another in the face. The other guests were too stunned to know how to respond.

Even more troubling, Kasidiaris escaped from custody at the television station and only resurfaced last Monday. Several commentators have suggested such a flight would not have been possible without the complicity of Greek police, half of whom reportedly voted for Golden Dawn in the last election. The neo-Nazis have the support of the police as well as a sizable chunk of the electorate. Liberal democracy in Europe may turn out not to be the conclusion of history but instead a very brief chapter. The old madness has returned. What is worse this time is there is good reason behind it.