As ex­trem­ism rises, Eu­rope faces an in­ward-look­ing, iso­lated fu­ture

To­day’s re­ac­tionary-right want to build walls, har­den bor­ders and turn their back on the world, writes Dan O’Brien

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Worldwide -

HAS the demo­cratic tide turned in the west­ern world? Will the forces of ex­trem­ism come to power in ever more coun­tries? Is Eu­rope head­ing back to the dark val­ley of the 1930s?

Un­der­stand­ing the changes tak­ing place in the pol­i­tics of the west­ern world is not easy. Schol­ars of pol­i­tics are di­vided on why the cen­tre is weak­en­ing. Some be­lieve that im­mi­gra­tion and more cul­tural di­ver­sity are driv­ing vot­ers away from main­stream par­ties while oth­ers fo­cus on eco­nomic fac­tors and in­equal­ity as the main ex­pla­na­tion.

What­ever the rea­sons, most of the at­ten­tion has been on the pop­ulist right. Hard-left par­ties have ben­e­fited from re­cent trends, but to a lesser de­gree than their coun­ter­parts at the other end of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. One rea­son is that they can­not claim suc­cesses when they have had power. In Greece, the Marx­ist-lean­ing Syriza party has lagged its main ri­val in opin­ion polls since within a few months of tak­ing of­fice in 2015 and looks set to be voted out of power next year. The on-go­ing tragedy of oil­rich Venezuela has re­in­forced the hard left’s long his­tor­i­cal record of dis­as­trous eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment.

The hard right has been elec­torally more suc­cess­ful and, as such, poses a big­ger threat to lib­eral democ­racy in Eu­rope and else­where. Hun­gary, Poland and the US are led by peo­ple out­side the cen­tre-right and cen­tre-left main­stream that has dom­i­nated pol­i­tics in the west for decades. For Eu­rope, per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment has been the com­ing to power of such a govern­ment in Rome ear­lier this year.

I’ll re­turn to Italy presently, but to un­der­stand the rise of re­ac­tionary-right and where it could lead, it is im­por­tant to con­sider the na­ture of these move­ments, not least be­cause there has been a ten­dency to la­bel them as “fas­cist” with lit­tle se­ri­ous thought as to what that ac­tu­ally means.

While the re­ac­tionary-right of to­day shares some fea­tures of the fas­cism of yesteryear, there are more dif­fer­ences than sim­i­lar­i­ties.

Per­haps the most im­por­tant dif­fer­ence is that the re­ac­tionary-right of to­day is iso­la­tion­ist — it wants to build walls, har­den bor­ders and turn its back on the world. Fas­cists were very dif­fer­ent. They be­lieved in march­ing across bor­ders, con­quer­ing their neigh­bours and cre­at­ing em­pires.

Fas­cists be­lieved that con­flict brought out the essence of man and was, thus, the nat­u­ral state of things. The modern pop­ulist right does not glo­rify ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist blood-let­ting and not even the wildest fringes of such par­ties ad­vo­cates mil­i­taris­tic im­pe­ri­al­ism. On the con­trary, they are more likely to crit­i­cise power pro­jec­tion abroad — think of Don­ald Trump’s op­po­si­tion to the US mil­i­tary pres­ence in Afghanistan be­fore he be­came pres­i­dent, un­der­pinned by his be­lief that US blood and trea­sure should not be ex­pended sort­ing out for­eign prob­lems. He has not changed since tak­ing of­fice.

Fas­cists’ im­pe­ri­al­ist im­pulses were driven not just by the de­sire for ter­ri­to­rial ag­gran­dis­e­ment, but also by a be­lief that the sub­ju­ga­tion of oth­ers was proof of na­tional su­pe­ri­or­ity and viril­ity. Eu­gen­ics — the be­lief that there was a sci­en­tific ba­sis for a hi­er­ar­chy of races — had wide cur­rency in the early 20th cen­tury across much of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. Fas­cist think­ing was more in­flu­enced by eu­gen­ics than any other be­lief sys­tem of the time.

The racism that ex­ists on the pop­ulist right to­day is not rooted in the pseu­do­science of eu­gen­ics, but has more to do with a re­ac­tionary ten­dency to view those who are dif­fer­ent with sus­pi­cion and/ or as a threat. In Poland and Hun­gary, this in­stinct partly ex­plains why both coun­tries have re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in an EU-wide scheme to house refugees who have come from out­side the bloc.

The dif­fer­ences be­tween the re­ac­tionar­ies of the right to­day and fas­cists of the past ex­tend be­yond war and race. They in­clude how states are or­dered in­ter­nally. Here, the dis­tinc­tion be­tween au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism is im­por­tant.

Fas­cists be­lieved that the state was ev­ery­thing. Noth­ing of any sig­nif­i­cance — po­lit­i­cally, so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally — could hap­pen with­out the in­volve­ment or at least the bless­ing of the state. For fas­cists, there was no such thing as in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions or civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions. There was only the state and “the peo­ple”.

Au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes come in many shapes and sizes. They use as much re­pres­sion as is deemed nec­es­sary to re­tain power, but do not have an ide­o­log­i­cal be­lief in to­tal con­trol of ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in the pub­lic sphere.

The hard-right par­ties of to­day share a be­lief that they are the authen­tic voice of “the peo­ple” and they at­tempt to si­lence those who dis­agree with them by var­i­ous means, but they are not to­tal­i­tar­ian. While most of them seek to curb in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions and crit­i­cism, they are not propos­ing to can­cel elec­tions, ban po­lit­i­cal par­ties other than them­selves or take con­trol of the in­ter­net.

Vic­tor Or­ban’s Hun­gary is per­haps the best ex­am­ple in Eu­rope of an au­thor­i­tar­ian-lean­ing govern­ment of the re­ac­tionary-right. Or­ban has used heavy-handed tac­tics to marginalise those with dif­fer­ent views — this week­end it looks as if the Cen­tral Eu­ro­pean Uni­ver­sity will be forced out of Bu­dapest. He has used govern­ment con­tracts to bol­ster his al­lies in busi­ness and un­der­mined me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions that do not sup­port him.

It is per­fectly pos­si­ble that Hun­gary will be­come more au­thor­i­tar­ian over time, but that is not in­evitable. Au­to­cratic regimes around the world, which range from par­tially demo­cratic to out­right au­toc­ra­cies, some­times be- come more demo­cratic over time and some­times less so. Many fac­tors are in­volved, but his­tory cer­tainly does not show an iron law that non-democ­ra­cies al­ways be­come to­tal­i­tar­ian.

The dif­fer­ences be­tween fas­cists and to­day’s re­ac­tionary-right are likely to be im­por­tant if the lat­ter do come to power in more Eu­ro­pean coun­tries. In­stead of a re­turn to an age of in­dus­trial war and death camps, the fu­ture might well look like other parts of the world to­day where au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes rule.

One does not have to look much be­yond Eu­rope’s doorstep to find them. Mo­rocco and Al­ge­ria are au­thor­i­tar­ian states. They are in­ter­nally re­pres­sive with poor hu­man rights records. The two coun­tries also have the hard­est of bor­ders. Along their 1,600km fron­tier, there is not a sin­gle le­gal cross­ing point. Un­sur­pris­ingly, given how hard their border is, they do lit­tle trade with each other. This is one rea­son they are so much poorer than their neigh­bours.

That brings us back to Italy. Its elec­tions last March may prove to be a watershed mo­ment. It brought a pop­ulist-na­tion­al­ist govern­ment to power. Some of its lead­ing fig­ures blame out­siders for all of the coun­try’s many woes. Italy would be great again were it not for eu­ro­crats in Brus­sels, in­ter­na­tional fi­nanciers and im­mi­grants.

The new govern­ment is promis­ing a swathe of tax cuts and new spend­ing ini­tia­tives. It is do­ing so against a back­drop of ex­treme eco­nomic, fis­cal and fi­nan­cial fragility. Italy is very close to en­ter­ing the same spi­ral that brought col­lapse in Greece and al­most brought down the euro.

As one of the 10 largest economies in the world, a Greek-style col­lapse in Italy would have enor­mous im­pli­ca­tions. It would al­most cer­tainly trig­ger a deep re­ces­sion across the con­ti­nent and the out­come could eas­ily be much worse.

The fi­nan­cial col­lapse of Italy would also likely lead to a break-up of the euro, some­thing that would raise ques­tions about the fu­ture of the wider Eu­ro­pean in­te­gra­tion project.

Eu­rope’s fu­ture may be to be­come more like the rest of the world, with coun­tries be­com­ing more closed and in­ward-look­ing, and a range of po­lit­i­cal regimes rang­ing from demo­cratic to au­thor­i­tar­ian. That may not be as bad as the 1930s and 1940s, but it is surely a fu­ture that few could re­ally wish for.

‘Italy is very close to en­ter­ing the same spi­ral that brought col­lapse in Greece’

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