Monday, December 12, 2011

Will A Worldwide Depression Cause Fascism To Rise In Europe Again? Can It Be Stopped?


Europe moves right... again

I've had friends who have been saying we've been in a Depression since the last year of Bush's disastrous term. But they don't have Nobel Prizes in economics. NY Times columnist/Princeton economics professor Paul Krugman is a Nobel laureate and he's managed to not call it a depression-- until this week. And not just a depression, but one that is already starting to inspire a fascist reaction, the way the Great Depression of the 1930s did in much of the world. He points out that the euro crisis "is killing the European dream. The shared currency, which was supposed to bind nations together, has instead created an atmosphere of bitter acrimony." Spain just elected a far right government. Italy and Greece had far right governments imposed on them by banksters backed by Germany.
[D]emands for ever-harsher austerity, with no offsetting effort to foster growth, have done double damage. They have failed as economic policy, worsening unemployment without restoring confidence; a Europe-wide recession now looks likely even if the immediate threat of financial crisis is contained. And they have created immense anger, with many Europeans furious at what is perceived, fairly or unfairly (or actually a bit of both), as a heavy-handed exercise of German power.

Nobody familiar with Europe’s history can look at this resurgence of hostility without feeling a shiver. Yet there may be worse things happening.

Right-wing populists are on the rise from Austria, where the Freedom Party (whose leader used to have neo-Nazi connections) runs neck-and-neck in the polls with established parties, to Finland, where the anti-immigrant True Finns party had a strong electoral showing last April. And these are rich countries whose economies have held up fairly well. Matters look even more ominous in the poorer nations of Central and Eastern Europe.

Last month the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development documented a sharp drop in public support for democracy in the “new E.U.” countries, the nations that joined the European Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not surprisingly, the loss of faith in democracy has been greatest in the countries that suffered the deepest economic slumps.

And in at least one nation, Hungary, democratic institutions are being undermined as we speak.

One of Hungary’s major parties, Jobbik, is a nightmare out of the 1930s: it’s anti-Roma (Gypsy), it’s anti-Semitic, and it even had a paramilitary arm. But the immediate threat comes from Fidesz, the governing center-right party.

Fidesz won an overwhelming Parliamentary majority last year, at least partly for economic reasons; Hungary isn’t on the euro, but it suffered severely because of large-scale borrowing in foreign currencies and also, to be frank, thanks to mismanagement and corruption on the part of the then-governing left-liberal parties. Now Fidesz, which rammed through a new Constitution last spring on a party-line vote, seems bent on establishing a permanent hold on power.

The details are complex. Kim Lane Scheppele, who is the director of Princeton’s Law and Public Affairs program-- and has been following the Hungarian situation closely-- tells me that Fidesz is relying on overlapping measures to suppress opposition. A proposed election law creates gerrymandered districts designed to make it almost impossible for other parties to form a government; judicial independence has been compromised, and the courts packed with party loyalists; state-run media have been converted into party organs, and there’s a crackdown on independent media; and a proposed constitutional addendum would effectively criminalize the leading leftist party. [Sounds like he's describing the Republican Party in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.]

Taken together, all this amounts to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule, under a paper-thin veneer of democracy, in the heart of Europe. And it’s a sample of what may happen much more widely if this depression continues.

It’s not clear what can be done about Hungary’s authoritarian slide. The U.S. State Department, to its credit, has been very much on the case, but this is essentially a European matter. The European Union missed the chance to head off the power grab at the start-- in part because the new Constitution was rammed through while Hungary held the Union’s rotating presidency. It will be much harder to reverse the slide now. Yet Europe’s leaders had better try, or risk losing everything they stand for.

And they also need to rethink their failing economic policies. If they don’t, there will be more backsliding on democracy-- and the breakup of the euro may be the least of their worries.

Uh, oh-- is America in any kind of shape to stand up to the rise of fascism overseas, the way FDR did in the 1930's and '40's? This calls for someone who understands the reactionary mind. Who better than The Reactionary Mind author Corey Robin? In 2002 Corey wrote a paper, Remembrance of Empires Past: 9/11 and the End of the Cold War for a conference at NYU, "Cold War Triumphalism." He starts out talking about three of the most prominent contemporary reactionary minds, William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz. Buckley and Kristol told him in interviews that the problem with the triumph of "free" markets was not that it promoted instability or dissolved tradition; "it was that it did not provide the passion and élan, the gravitas and authority, that the exercise of American power truly required, at home and abroad. Simply put, the free market was too bloodless a notion upon which to found a national order, much less a global empire.
Kristol confessed to a deep yearning for an American empire: “What’s the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role? It’s unheard of in human history. The most powerful nation always had an imperial role.” But, he continued, previous empires were not “capitalist democracies with a strong emphasis on economic growth and economic prosperity.” Because of its commitment to the free market, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. “It’s too bad,” Kristol lamented. “I think it would be natural for the United States... to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. Not what we’re doing now but to command and to give orders as to what is be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world-- Africa in particular-- where an authority willing to use troops can make a very good difference, a healthy difference.” But with public discussion moderated by accountants-- “There’s the Republican party tying itself into knots. Over what? Prescriptions for elderly people? Who gives a damn? I think it’s disgusting that... presidential politics of the most important country in the world should resolve around prescriptions for elderly people. Future historians will find this very hard to believe. It’s not Athens. It’s not Rome. It’s not anything.” Kristol thought it unlikely that the United States would take its rightful place as the successor to empires past.

Though Kristol and Buckley do not represent the entire conservative movement, much less elites as a whole, their anxious meditations about the tensions between imperial politics and market ideology speak to a genuine problem that America’s leaders have been wrestling with since the end of the Cold War – a problem, these leaders hope, resolved by the events of September 11. The collapse of communism left the United States defending the most powerful empire in history with an ideology-- the free market-- resolutely hostile to all forms of politics. According to its visionaries, the free market is a harmonious, virtually self-reproducing order, promising an international civil society of voluntary exchange and non-coercive rule, requiring little more from the state than the occasional enforcement of laws and contracts. Reconciling this free-wheeling vision with the reality of imperial over-reach-– the United States today has a military presence in more countries than at any time since the Second World War-- has proven to be an inordinately difficult task for America’s leaders. Not only does the idea of a global free market fit uneasily with the coercive exercise of imperial power, but it also fails to provide the home population of that empire with a compelling reason for participating either in its defense or in the reproduction of its civic life. Perhaps for that reason, the lead item of American intellectual complaint throughout the 1990s has been that the United States is insufficiently civic-minded or martial, that its leaders and citizens are too distracted by glittery prosperity and showy affluence to take care of its inherited institutions, common concerns, and world-wide defense.

It's very much worth reading Robin's whole book, or at least this entire paper, which you can find here.

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