Summer has just arrived to Europe and the streets of Paris, blockaded by striking workers and students throughout the spring, are still on fire. The tumult in France is the latest in a five-year wave of uprisings across the world — from Egypt to Istanbul — that have drawn comparisons to the global uprisings of 1968.
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But it’s not just the forces of social and economic justice that are having their moment. A few hundred kilometers away in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has been very narrowly defeated in the presidential election in these same days, demonstrating the significant resurgence of nationalism in the region. In Greece, as the state positions itself to deport tens of thousands of refugees, riot police have stormed makeshift shelters and forcefully relocated those who have fled places like Syria and Afghanistan to government-run detention centers.
And in the United Kingdom, days before a Brexit vote on the country’s status within the European Union that has garnered support from both the far right and far left, pro-refugee Member of Parliament Jo Cox was publicly murdered on June 16, by a fascist activist in the first political assassination to occur in that country in decades.
These developments, and the IMF’s recent statement calling its own neoliberal doctrine into question, summarize a much larger one: the European Union is unraveling, and the global order that my generation grew up with as a fact of life, the one whose emergence was described by Francis Fukuyama as the “end of history,” is crumbling, too.
Jolted by a long-anticipated crisis that its hastily taped-together societies may not be willing to deal with, Europe is retreating to its nationalist past. From its Scandinavian north to its Balkan south, names like Le Pen, Soini, Kaczynksi, Petry and Hofer surge in European polls. These leaders of relatively young far right nationalist parties espouse a fascistic political rhetoric that has become increasingly popular in the last decade.
But it’s not just Europe: across the Atlantic, a surge of openly racist right-wing politics — represented by Donald Trump, but carrying with it the full arsenal of US history — has come fully into the open. On both sides of the pond, traditional conservatism is being challenged by a new fascistic politic dominated by xenophobic populism and pursuing far-right social values alongside a blend of both right-wing and left-wing economic ideas.
Movements like these, based steeply in racial and ethnocentric hate, rarely rise without real or perceived economic crises beneath them. History has shown us this repeatedly, from pre-Nazi Germany to post-Soviet Yugoslavia. When the unraveling starts, what once seemed like co-existence goes out the window.
“What we have at stake today is Europe, the European way of life, the survival or disappearance of European values and nations, or their transformation beyond recognition,” Hungarian far-Right Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in a speech last summer.
The perceived threat of an “invasion” or “takeover” that threatens the “traditional” Christian white supremacy of these nations are views shared by the new-right both in Europe and the United States. Refugees on both continents are considered secret terrorists, infiltrating through the borders as part of a massive, coordinating plan to “Islamify” the West. Migrant workers are seen as “illegal” invaders seeking to steal the jobs of “hard-working” people.
Religious intolerance, tied closely to the fear of terrorism and instigated in part by the rhetoric of the European far Right, have led to pogroms in Hungary and the Czech Republic, growing fascist and ultra-nationalist movements in France, Finland, Greece, Bulgaria and the Netherlands, and a wave of mosque firebombings in Sweden and Germany.
At once pro- and anti-Western, this “eurosceptic” new-right is aligned with (and in some cases, financed by) Vladimir Putin’s Russia, opposed to NATO’s domination of Europe, and critical of American and German influence in the European periphery (many of these parties have backed Russia in Ukraine.)
These parties are European in their global orientation and critical of “foreign” interference in their domestic affairs, while clinging to ultra-nationalist rhetoric (“Austria First” or “Britain First”) that sound quite similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Trump too has come out as a NATO sceptic, and as at least a vocal supporter of Putin, directing his support toward the Russian leader’s strongman persona and top-down authority. The Republican nominee also happens to employ the skills of an important strategist, Paul Manafort, who coordinated not only Reagan’s Southern Strategy, a continuation of the Nixon-era approach to winning racist votes in the White South, but also the campaigns of several eurosceptic politicians across the Atlantic.
Though the specter of “Islamic terrorism” and a sudden surge in refugees entering through the continent’s south have provided fuel for the new European far right’s rise in politics, opposition to the European Union and popular reaction to the eurozone debt crisis are some of the foundations underpinning them.
A Fading Global Hegemony
While steeped in their complicated domestic histories, the rise of this new far right on both continents have defined common links: their love affair with Putin; their racist, homophobic and ethnocentric worldviews; and also the shared turning points in their histories stemming from the trajectory of US global economic and political dominance in the latter half of the 20th century.
It makes sense that comparisons to pre-fascist Europe are being drawn at the same time as those to the global uprisings of 1968; both periods defined eras when the entire global political, economic, and military establishment was called into question in very real ways, thanks to guerilla resistance in occupied lands, militant domestic protests and globally significant economic transitions.
At the center of Europe’s dilemma is the impending end of the euro, a currency born not as much from the political tumult but from the economic crises of the 1970s, when the US began a three-decade long deficit spree that was only alleviated for the four short years of Bill Clinton’s second term (with no surpluses since). Up until that point, the post-War surpluses that inaugurated the US as the new global hegemony, delegated through a series of institutions and guidelines established at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, floated Europe’s currencies and financed the rebuilding of their cities and industries. From this system Germany rose, as the US strategists at Bretton Woods had planned, as the regional European power, a shock absorber for the US superpower.
The turning point — when the post-war system was ended on US terms with the Volcker Shock of 1971 and the subsequent oil crisis in 1973 — was not a small political decision. Paul Volcker’s insistence to cut Europe from the dollar was a gamble, but one that US hegemonic thinkers felt they had to take. These strategists realized that the US wasn’t just losing the Vietnam War, it was losing balance on its own economic axis. A new strategy would have to emerge to replace the Bretton Woods system, and the old Bretton Woods institutions would have to be repurposed to bring it about.
As Volcker said in his 1978 speech at the University of Warwick, outlining his view of the US economic agenda shortly before he became head of the Federal Reserve, “[A] controlled disintegration of the world economy is a legitimate objective for the 1980s.”
It was in the period preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1970s, that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began its offensive, advising countries in the Global South to take macro-versions of the infamous subprime-loan attached to a defined package of economic restructuring policies (The Washington Consensus, as it became known) designed to benefit US economic institutions. This offensive, Yanis Varoufakis argues in his new book And the Weak Suffer What They Must? was part of an intentional global economic “controlled burn” led by the Federal Reserve and Wall Street banks, intended to create a climate suitable for the rise of the new US economic bubble; the financialization of its debt.
If the US was becoming a deficit and others were becoming surplus countries, Volcker argued, the US would have to find a way to profit from other countries’ surpluses. At the same time, as part of its “controlled burn,” it had to crush rising industrial centers and new political formations in the Global South that threatened to turn away from the US debt-scheme. Germany needed the US to help recycle its money, but at that time the Global South could turn to the Soviet Union for support. Or, as many tried, they could attempt what the non-aligned “Third World” movement had sought two decades earlier, an alternative global system of nations avoiding both superpowers.
Across the world, especially in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, various mechanisms including coups and military interventions intended to bring about both economic chaos and impose order based on US interests were employed. These were not just random “bullish” actions, but part of an overall strategy to keep the US on top of the global economic order.
Iraq, Libya and Syria were some of the last holdouts from this era, and their turn toward extreme dictatorship reflected not only a regional trend and political failure, but also a harsh reality; like in Cuba, breathing room was unavailable (if it was ever desired).
These brutal regimes built credibility on mythologies based in realistic possibility, the main one being the ever-present threat posed by the US and its ally Israel. All an Arab dictatorship had to do was pose tough to Israel or claim an “anti-imperialist” orientation to win support at home, even if it was making simultaneous backroom deals with the US to maintain a steady supply of military equipment for domestic control in exchange for inaction on the question of Palestine.
At home, the US economic strategists were creating a financial climate in which more profits could be made via loans and debt than by actual products, all of which would circulate through Wall Street banks. The US would profit immensely off of items it wasn’t even producing, and would still maintain global economic dominance even though it would be among the world’s largest deficit nations.
Across the industrial areas of the US, like my hometown Baltimore, corporate interests began shifting their resources towards this new reality, relocating factories to low-wage countries, stashing their workers’ pensions in sprawling webs of Wall Street gambling schemes, and investing uncountable sums into the world of financial speculation. Soon, this financial labyrinth grew to include bizarre hustles we came to know too well after 2008. “Collateralized loan obligations” and “credit default swaps” were schemes only a Wall Street banker could invent.
All the while, my generation was preparing itself for piles of student-loan debt and toxic mortgage payments we would have to deal with when we got older. We would attempt to pay them off eventually through low-wage jobs while still clinging to the idea that we could save some money someday. Alternatively, we could invest our small savings, if we ever had them, into Wall Street management funds and hope for the best.
“The real victor in 1989 was not democracy, but capitalism,” Mark Mazower suggests in Dark Century, “and Europe as a whole now faces the task which western Europe has confronted since the 1930’s, of establishing a workable relationship between the two.”
In the decade preceding the fall of the Soviet Union, European powers led by France and Germany were debating ways to glue their currencies together to survive in the new world economy. France wanted to resist the US push for global dominance and offer a European counter-weight. Germany wanted to stay comfortable in its position, enjoying the benefits of being America’s shock-absorber while using the space it offered them to build its economy to survive even its protector’s economic demise.
Germany today is the product of that system. With its massive export surplus (the second largest in the world) stemming from a forty-percent manufacturing economy, Germany survived the 2008-crash fairly unscathed while continuing to dominate the eurozone. In the last 15 years, trade with the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) has nearly quadrupled for the country, and it is set to increase by 600 percent by 2020. At the same time, inter-European German trade is falling, while southern Europe’s reliance on German credit and access to the German market is more important than ever.
What this all means is that Germany does not want to save the euro, but rather, save itself as the euro falls. “… sometime in the next few years,” Thomas Hartmann writes in The Crash of 2016, “German policy makers will deem the collapse of the eurozone as a necessary roadbump in the transition to new developing economies … the Germans are preparing for a post-Europe export economy …”
This German-centered Europe is the result of the negotiations that led to the formation of the eurozone, which leaned towards Germany’s objectives from the get-go due to its attachment to the US global plan. The results of this relationship, and Germany’s industrial growth that eventually outpaced its protector, were simultaneously accepted and feared by strategists in the US. But there was a new hope that at least in the short-term, American interests could be met even as other countries like Germany, Japan, and China rose to economic prominence.
This is where we are today. The US is declining as a global superpower on all fronts, challenged militarily by rival powers and makeshift guerilla insurgencies alike, and eating its own tail economically as the Frankenstein it created tears at the seams.
“The real question is not whether US hegemony is waning,” Emmanuel Wallerstein writes in his 2003 The Decline of American Power, “but whether the United States can devise a way to descend gradually, with minimum damage to the world, and to itself.”
The Road From 2011
The global economic system, as designed originally at Bretton Woods and adjusted in the 1970s to reflect the changing needs of US global hegemony (and the haphazard responses to those changes) is in crisis, and social and political tendencies long kept at bay by a period of artificial stability have reemerged as viable movements. These movements, from the far right and the far left, offer both horror and hope to those of us who believe in real economic, political and social liberation.
That the new era of progressive global eruption came from these “hold-out” countries in the Middle East in particular is telling. The Arab uprisings were not mere demands for “democracy” as the Western media told us, but responses to sudden economic jolts that shot the price of wheat and fuel up dramatically.
As James C. Davies wrote in 1962, echoing an idea Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in 1856, “revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.”
And so it was in the home of the region’s “most competitive economy,” Tunisia, that the first revolution rose at the end of 2010, fueled by a generation of university graduates facing a jobless future. The political upheaval that followed that summer in Europe was mirrored in the streets of downtown Manhattan by the fall.
But the far right would rise too, responding to the same economic conditions as these movements, as well as to the threat they posed to the far right’s ideology. While Spanish youth were occupying the Plaça del Sol, Greek neo-Nazis were camping in Syntagma Square and spreading a different critique of the IMF, Europe, and global capitalism that won them 18 seats in the country’s Parliament.
Supporters of the Golden Dawn, like those of other far-right parties, are disillusioned with the old structures of power and feel disenfranchised by their position in the global economy as their historical privilege declines with the global economic order.
“[Fascism] cannot be understood without reference to anxiety… namely the feeling of isolation, insignificance, and powerlessness of the individual,” Martha C. Nussbaum writes in The Meaning of Anxiety. “In analyzing the German form of fascism, [Erich] Fromm describes the powerlessness experienced by the middle class after World War 1 and especially after the depression of 1929. This class was not only economically, but also psychologically, insecure.”
A study conducted last year by Fusion and The Washington Post found that faith in the “American Dream” among Americans has dropped significantly since 1986, when a similar poll was conducted. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Black people had only a slightly higher disbelief in the “American Dream” than they did three decades ago. White people, however, polled three times higher in their disbelief.
“[The] rise in pessimism among millennials is concentrated among white people. It is most pronounced among whites who did not earn a college degree,” the Washington Post wrote. “The divergence comes even though white and non-white young workers have experienced similar income trends over the last 30 years.”
White America’s expectations, inflated by a long history of economic and political policies designed in their favor, have been eroding. For various reasons, including a failure by leftist movement to engage with these communities and offer alternative, anti-racist populist narratives, this break in expectations is pushing lower-income white people into the new right’s roofless shelter.
In Europe too, a similar generation faces a future offering little fulfillment of the dreams and expectations of their parents, as the hopeful promise of the eurozone crumbles before them. Indeed, many Europeans are anticipating the possibility of having to decrease a standard of living typically associated with modern Europe, and the radical nationalism of the last century has returned to resist that through the same divisive ideas that pushed the first waves of fascism across the continent.
Expectation — specifically the expectation that things are going to continue to improve economically both for the historically privileged as well as for those who believe they can attain that privilege with some degree of effort — is a key aspect to the new right’s anxiety.
What makes such a situation especially difficult is the fact that perception, whether based in reality or not, does produce real emotional effects. Such feelings are experienced as realities, even if they are based in non-realities. In effect, non-realities are shaping far-right politics just as much, if not more, than reality is.
In an environment in which a large segment of the population has experienced a break in their economic expectations, figuring out how to challenge such perceptions must involve not only pointing out facts but also responding to emotional reactions to real and perceived conditions.
It is those in the lower rungs of what we could call the “expecting class,” with their hopes of further economic well-being shattered and the road to poverty ahead, who are the political actors driving the current wave of polarization in the US and Europe.
Both Europe and the US are facing demographic shifts, historically embedded racism and a rapidly changing economic reality. While radical grassroots movements are challenging xenophobic nationalism and neoliberal economic policies from both the streets and political offices, Trump and his European counterparts, and the populations they represent, are pushing for closed borders and a zero-tolerance for refugees, dumping the blame for the economic crises on those least responsible for it.
In many ways, this is nothing new. “The intellectual tradition which defines Europe with the cause of liberty and freedom goes back many centuries,” Mazower continues. “But if we face the fact that liberal democracy failed between the wars, and if we admit that communism and fascism also formed part of the continent’s political heritage, then it is hard to deny that what has shaped Europe in this century is not a gradual convergence of thought and feeling, but on the contrary a series of violent clashes between antagonistic New Orders.”
The United States has a similar story, where conflict, competing interests and dramatic movements for justice are candy-coated to tell a story of “improvement” and “democratic processes.”
We are at a crossroads of new paradigms, new alliances and new realities. The rise of the European Trumps, the new French revolt and the polarizing contention in the streets of the United States are its symptoms.
The ground is shifting, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.