Here in America we have only just begun to feel the social and political effects of the worldwide economic crisis: rising unemployment, a wave of bankruptcies and foreclosures, and a general contraction in economic activity. State and local governments are imposing austerity measures, and the federal government faces a “fiscal cliff” that may be much steeper than anyone now imagines. In Europe, however, they are already halfway down into the abyss, with Greece falling faster and harder — and several southern European countries not too far behind.
The response of governments throughout the continent has been a regime of “austerity” designed to reduce deficits piled up as a result of many decades of extravagance: populations which have come to expect government subsidies as their just due are being subjected to draconian budget cuts, and the social and political structures built up since the end of the second world war are in danger of collapse. The decline and probable fall of the euro augurs worse to come, with the spillover effect threatening us here in the US.
The last worldwide economic depression led to the rise of national socialism in Germany, fascism in Italy, and ultimately to a devastating global conflict that killed millions: could it happen again?
The economic and social factors that led to the rise of national socialism and fascism in Europe are too well-known to require much reiteration here: the plight of Weimar Germany, with its runaway inflation, and subsequent social disintegration, pulverized the socio-economic fabric of the nation that gave us Goethe and Beethoven, empowering authoritarian ideologues of the right and the left. Marginal figures moved to the mainstream, and the results were horrific.
That process seems to be repeating itself today, with the rising tide of far-right movements in Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and even Finland. And it isn’t just Europe: the so-called Arab Spring is occasioned by skyrocketing food prices and even worse economic conditions than we see elsewhere. With Islamist parties moving to fill the breach as US-supported tyrants like Hosni Mubarak fall by the wayside, the Weimar Effect is very far from being an exclusively European phenomenon.
Greece, the most extreme case of economic implosion, is showcasing the looming threat. With more than 25% unemployment (twice that among the young), and the complete collapse of the country’s most basic institutions, an openly fascist political party is moving to fill the gap. “Golden Dawn” is quite explicit about its ideological antecedents: their symbol is the Greek version of a swastika.
The party was founded in the early 1990s by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a fifty-five year old rightist agitator and ex-military man with a long history as a pro-Nazi propagandist. Like Hitler, he served a jail term early in his political career for his violent “activism”: imprisoned in the same facility with the leaders of the 1967 military junta, their example inspired him to create “Golden Dawn,” initially a magazine which featured apologias for Naziism, and Holocaust denial. He and his followers registered Golden Dawn as a political party in 1993. A marginal force initially, the party — which garnered less than 1 percent in previous polls — received a stunning 14 percent of the national vote in Greece’s recent parliamentary elections.
Golden Dawn’s message is all too familiar: while the far left — which is also gaining ground — blames “capitalism” for the country’s woes, the Golden Dawners are far more explicit: Jewish bankers, they say, are the cause of Europe’s economic problems and Greece’s plight (oh, and by the way, the Holocaust is a lie). Their response to the “austerity” policies of centrist politicians is to blame foreigners — 2 million of whom currently reside in Greece — for rising crime and “stealing jobs” from natives. Black-shirted toughs patrol the streets, beating up foreigners, attacking immigrant hotels, and even infiltrating the police, who have “out-sourced” law enforcement in large sections of central Athens to Golden Dawn thugs. Like all fascists everywhere, they cite historical fantasies of a “Greater” nation: if Golden Dawn ever came to power, the “lost” lands of Macedonia and portions of the former Yugoslavia would be “reclaimed,” and war with Turkey would only be a matter of time.
These aren’t Republicans-with-attitude: these are outright fascists, whose retro-Nazi symbols and rhetoric invoke the darkest traditions of modern European politics.
And it isn’t just Greece: in Hungary, where a right-wing majority party has gained power, the same ultra-nationalist anti-foreigner tidal wave has swept the electorate. There a Golden Dawn-like party, known as “Jobbik,” has targeted Jews and Gypsies — the two major villains of Nazi propaganda — as well as homosexuals to garner rising public support. Like Golden Dawn, Jobbik does little to mask its ideological heritage. As Gabor Vona, the party’s 33-year-old leader, put it last January:
“We are not communists, fascists, or National Socialists. But — and this is important for everyone to understand very clearly — we are also not democrats.”
Inveighing against the “Jewish political class,” and calling for the “purification” of Hungarian culture, Jobbik received 17 percent of the vote in an election in which the conservative Fidesz party unseated Hungary’s socialist party, winning an unprecedented two-thirds majority in parliament. Fidesz acted quickly to consolidate its victory, moving against independent media, reducing the power of the judiciary, and completely rewriting the constitution: in effect, Jobbik is their radical caucus.
Aside from stomping around in tight-fitting uniforms and beating people up, one of the main platform planks of these types of groups is expansionism. In the international arena, Jobbik pushes a narrative known as “Turanism,” or Pan-Turkism, which traces the origins of the Hungarian people to the steppes of Central Asia and calls for the political unity of all “Turkic” peoples. As Jamie Kirchick writes in The Tablet:
“One of the first things that struck me during my first visit to Hungary was the prevalence of bumper stickers and postcards depicting ‘Greater Hungary’ — that is, Hungary as it was during the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before it came out on the losing side in World War I. The loss of two-thirds of its territory and the dispersal of one-third of its people to the various successor states has left a profound psychological wound on the Hungarian right. Jobbik uses the map of Greater Hungary in its propaganda — a wooden engraving of one sits prominently on [Jobbik MP Márton] Gyöngyösi’s coffee table — and the party campaigned on the pledge that ‘the Trianon borders should be dropped within a few generations or as soon as possible.’”
A narrative of lost greatness is endemic to the neo-fascist milieu internationally. While Jobbik dreams of a “Greater Hungary,” and Golden Dawn demands a “Greater Greece,” in Israel it is the “mainstream” parties that openly call for a Greater Israel. This is loosely based on the national mythology on which the Jewish state was founded, and under Likud has become the central assumption of its domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, the political landscape in Israel is eerily similar to Hungary’s: the “mainstream” Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu plays to the same audience as the extremist Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the official merger of the two parties ought to have alarm bells going off in the West.
While Jobbik targets Jews and Gypsies, calling for their expulsion and/or ghettoization, Lieberman’s followers want to ethnically cleanse Israel’s Arab population, while the call for a “Greater Israel” is embedded in the Likud party platform. The thugs of the Golden Dawn, and Jobbik’s uniformed “Arrow Cross” imitators have their Israeli equivalents in the increasing violence of the “settler” movement. And this rabid ethno-nationalism is growing in some pretty fertile fields: as I pointed out in Friday’s column, a recent poll showed a majority of Israelis endorsing an apartheid state as a “good” and/or “necessary” measure in defense of the Jewish state.
Elsewhere in the region, the so-called Arab Spring has given impetus to Islamist parties that promise to make sense out of a decomposing economic and political order, while invoking myths of past glories and scapegoating religious minorities.
In the United States, we have yet to see the rise of a mass movement that limns the historic themes and forms of fascism, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here.
Anti-“foreigner” appeals in American politics are nothing new, but we see it increasingly in these times of economic uncertainty: indeed, both major parties have made China-bashing a consistent theme in this presidential election year, with Mitt Romney trying to blame our trade deficit on Chinese “currency manipulators” — an Asiatic version of the “Jewish bankers” invoked by Jobbik and Golden Dawn. One of the greatest ironies is that we have the first African-American President and his party going after the Republicans for supposedly shipping “our” jobs to China — feeding into the economically illiterate and outright racist idea that those strange little yellow people are the root cause of our economic problems.
The American right-wing is rife with these kinds of sentiments, which find expression in the “birther” movement, and the charge that the President isn’t really an American — he’s a secret Muslim imbued with a “Kenyan anti-colonialist” mindset. Taking their cues from their ideological blood brothers in Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the neoconservative right targets Muslims as the scapegoat on which to blame all our problems, invoking the supposedly looming threat of “sharia law” (and the phony specter of Iranian nukes) to demonize a minority group. Although the actual “problem” of illegal immigration has recently been cut in half due to the economic downturn — the jobs these migrants are supposedly “stealing” from us having evaporated — it’s interesting that the rhetoric of the anti-immigrationists has only gotten louder and more extreme. In bad times, many look for a scapegoat — whether it’s immigrants, Jews, gays, or Gypsies is due to local circumstances and the relative powerlessness of such groups.
All the themes of incipient fascism are present, to some degree, in our present-day political culture: the fear of the Other, the need for a (powerless) scapegoat, including the theme of expansionism. Not that anyone is calling for a “Greater America,” but militarism and the idea of America’s “manifest destiny” as the guardian and instrument of “world order” suffuse ostensibly “conservative” pronouncements on foreign policy. Indeed, in the 1990s one of the prime proponents of today’s “sensible centrism,” David Brooks, co-authored a series of articles in the neoconservative Weekly Standard extolling the concept of “national greatness,” and during that era “national greatness conservatism” was a major conceit of the American right-wing. It’s no accident that the same decade — and the same magazine — saw explicit calls for an “American empire,” an oxymoronic concept if ever there was one.
It wouldn’t take much to mix and magnify these implicit themes into a much more explicit, consistent — and dangerous — toxic cocktail, one that an increasingly panicked American public would willingly quaff. Another economic “event,” such as the crash of ’08, another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11, or perhaps some combination of both — it isn’t alarmism but rather realism to observe these trends with trepidation.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
There is much more to be said about this topic than I have time or room for in a single essay, including the idea that in America, at least, we are much more likely to get fascism-from-above rather than a genuinely authoritarian populist movement bubbling up from below.
I have to note, however, that the kind of political correctness that banishes all objections to, say, our liberal immigration policies, or that labels attacks on politically-connected bankers and other crony capitalists as “extremism,” contributes to the growth and influence of proto-fascist themes. Rather than keeping a lid on them, pious liberals and other “progressives” — with their speech codes and other instruments of “soft” repression — merely drive these sentiments underground, providing fertile field for extremist recruiting efforts. That’s why, for example, we see the rise of brazenly fascist groups in such bastions of political correctness as France and Britain, where the National Front and the “English Defense League,” respectively, are gaining ground.
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