Who lost Europe?
OK, Europe isn’t lost – merely home to a growing number of neo-fascists. The elections to the European Parliament still gave roughly 70 percent of the seats to parties of the center right and center left. But most of the rest of that body will be composed of a greatly increased number of delegates from nationalist, far-right parties critical of the European Union and united by anti-immigrant and homophobic bias. A number of these parties are openly racist and anti-Semitic. A few – notably Greece’s Golden Dawn - are effectively neo-Nazi, down to their belief in violence as an appropriate, and apparently satisfying, form of political action.
Europe’s new far right is, at one and the same time, the continent’s analogue to our own tea party and the leading cheerleader for Russian President Vladimir Putin. With the divisions of the Cold War now safely confined to museums, a new transnational right is emerging, defined by a belief in a national volk and its traditions and a disdain for, if not loathing of, any neighbors – Muslims, Jews, social democrats – who either aren’t part of that volk or don’t believe in the politics of intolerance. Hence the spectacle of Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s U.K. Independence Party, and our own Pat Buchanan, expressing their admiration for Putin’s war on the moral flabbiness that comes with elevating democracy over traditional values – rotten though those values may be.
Five factors have contributed to the rise of the Euro-right. The first is the top-down and thoroughly botched manner of European integration that was devised and implemented by the continent’s political and economic elites. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 locked Europe’s nations into budgetary policies that forbade countercyclical spending during recessions. Creating a continental currency – with no corresponding continental budget – took from those nations the ability to devalue their currencies to spur exports and revive their economies. This meant that when a downturn came – and the downturn following Lehman Brothers’ collapse is the second factor in the rise of the Euro-right – the nations with weaker economies had no way to adjust policy to counter it.
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Europe could have come to their rescue, helping those nations generate jobs through, say, public works programs. But Germany, the continent’s dominant power, insisted instead that they had to cut spending to balance their budgets, even as their tax revenues plummeted. This German intransigence is the third factor in the right’s ascent.
Unemployment quickly soared to a quarter of the workforce in Greece and youth unemployment to twice that in Spain and Italy. Germany saw to it that this situation would be addressed by austerity – the same policy that had deepened the Depression in the early 1930s, chased Herbert Hoover from the White House and Ramsay MacDonald from Downing Street and doomed the Weimar Republic. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s failure to realize that her government was inflicting upon Greece the same toxic combination of economic devastation and political despair that once led her nation to turn to Hitler typifies the appalling outbreak of historical amnesia that has gripped much of Germany during the past five years.
All this has laid the groundwork for the explosion of nativism in a number of European nations. Absent political options that can create healthy economies, hard times tend to produce a need for scapegoats. The Euro-right has found those scapegoats in the millions of immigrants who’ve come from outside Europe over the past two decades. That’s the fourth factor.
The fifth factor should be the one that concerns Americans most, for it’s a problem we have been no more able than our European counterparts to solve. As economist Thomas Piketty has demonstrated, the low levels of income disparity that once characterized the economies of the United States and Western Europe have given way to heightened levels of economic inequality. The economic security and broadly shared prosperity of the postwar generation have eroded throughout the West, though the social democracies of Northern Europe and the corporate-democracy system in Germany have managed to mitigate that erosion.
Lest Americans conclude that we’re immune to Europe’s ills, consider that the tea party and the tea-party-ization of the mainstream Republican Party have emerged in response to the same basic woes that have plagued Europe: diminishing economic prospects for many and the fear that our “traditional” nation – in our case, the white man’s America – was fast disappearing and had to be preserved by whatever means were at hand (anti-immigrant statutes, voter suppression laws).
Fascism, be it paleo- or neo-, doesn’t flourish in good times. But for our economic elites and political leaders, as for Europe’s, creating good times under globalized capitalism remains a riddle with few, if any, conventional solutions.