By John Weeks

Over four days at the end of next month (22-25 May) citizens of European Union countries have the opportunity to vote for representatives to the EU parliament in Strasburg, an opportunity that a very large proportion in each country will ignore.  Among those rampantly enthusiastic in their participation will be the parties of the far right, both the crypto-fascists and the flauntingly fascists.

In his 1994 book the world-famous Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that the conflict between capitalism and communism determined the course of the twentieth century (thus the title, The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, see video in which he discusses it, and text here).  This confrontation of socioeconomic ideologies without doubt dominated Europe, especially after 1945.

Another confrontation that determined the course of the entire twentieth century was authoritarianism versus democracy.  The capitalism-communism conflict seems but a moment of history for people now in their forties and younger.  However, the danger of a rising authoritarian tide is as imminent in the twenty-first century as serious as it was in the twentieth.  This rising tide should make us realize that the defeat of fascism during WW II was far from definitive and final.  Understanding the danger requires a brief excursion back to the last century.

In 1930 in most countries of Europe the contest between authoritarian and democratic visions of society dominated the political struggle.  The exceptions were Italy where the fascists had already established an extreme version of authoritarian rule, and Britain where a rigid class structure gave stability to superficially democratic institutions.  By the middle of the 1930s capitalist authoritarian regimes were clearly on the rise in Germany and much of central and eastern Europe (e.g., Hungary and Poland), as well as Portugal, with Spain soon to join the anti-democratic camp.

Among the industrialized countries in the late 1930s in very few did democracy seem the stronger trend.  Of the large countries only in the United States did one find an unambiguous shift towards a strengthening of popular participation.  Ironically enough it was during the presidency of patrician Franklin D Roosevelt that trade unions asserted themselves as a major political force (which would not survive much past mid-century).

Now, well into the twenty-first century it is difficult to find a European country with vigorous democratic institutions, with the possible exception of the Nordics.  Britain probably has the most extensive video surveillance network in Europe (see the BBC website), as well as legal restrictions on the right of assembly designed to reduce public protests (as found in Spain).  In addition, the Conservative-dominated Coalition government’s brutal attack on poor households receiving social support in effect legalizes civil rights violations.  Surveillance, attacks on the poor and the government fanning fears of immigrants combine to make a potent anti-democratic package.

A roll call of EU countries produces a depressing litany of human rights abuses in great part fostered by xenophobia.  Most obviously, restriction on political rights and the rise of neo-Nazi groups threaten to undermine democratic institutions in the Baltic countries, while in Hungary the fascist Jobbik Party gained ten percent of the vote in the last election.  Benjamin Ward of Human Rights Watch recently gave a grim assessment of anti-democratic trends in the EU,

“In many European countries, extremist parties— espousing racist, anti-immigrant or anti minority policies—are part of the political landscape. Their platforms vary, with some corresponding to traditional far-right parties. But they frequently define themselves by strong opposition to particular groups, including Muslims and immigrants (particularly among parties in Western Europe) and Roma (in Eastern Europe).”

Throughout the European Union authoritarian tendencies enjoyed a quantum leap under the austerity regime fostered by the German government under the cover of the European Commission.  The unelected governments in Greece (2011-2012) and Italy (2011-2013) represent the most obvious and shocking examples of the authoritarian trend.  Much more serious in the long term is the EU fiscal compact (officially named the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union). 
This treaty, which came into effect at the beginning of 2013, severely limits the authority of national parliaments to set fiscal policy.  The treaty and additional measures demanded by the German government remove fiscal policy from public control (with monetary policy already in the hands of the European Central Bank and beyond national accountability).  This process in which major decisions are taken away from the electorate fundamentally undermines public faith in the democratic process.  The rise of neo-fascist groups with an extra-parliamentary agenda such as the New Dawn in Greece comes as no surprise.

Just over a year ago, Peer Steinbrueck, then the German Social Democratic Party’s candidate for chancellor, spoke at the German Embassy in London.  In his speech he proposed that the European Commission should have the power to veto national budgets if they exceed the guidelines of the fiscal compact.

In the question period I suggested that such a veto would violate the principle that the governed should be able to hold their governments accountable.  In reply Germany’s leading Social Democrat said that fiscal stability required countries to surrender some of their sovereignty.  In other words, the goal of “fiscal stability” requires the citizens of Europe to surrender their basic democratic right to hold a government responsible for its economic policies.

The authoritarian trend in Europe is obvious.  What is its source?  In the 1920s and 1930s the rise of authoritarian regimes followed the wide-spread public perception that unregulated capitalism resulted in spectacular disasters.  These disasters included the most catastrophic war in human history, soon followed by the most devastating economic crisis the world had ever known.  Many on both the Left and the Right judged “bourgeois democracy” as degenerate and dysfunctional.  In Russian the rejection of capitalism took the form of an attempt to create a governance system in the interests of the working class and peasantry.  The hope for popular democracy quickly collapsed as the putative workers’ state transformed into thinly disguised authoritarian rule.

Far worse, in Italy and Germany the discrediting of liberal capitalism led to unabashed dictatorships that made no pretence of their authoritarian nature.  The business elites constructed these fascist regimes to maintain the rule of capital in face of powerful labor movements.  The regimes proved appallingly successful not only in crushing the labor movement but also in rolling back the principles of the Enlightenment.  Destruction of these savage regimes required a war even more catastrophic than the 1914-1918 conflict.

The current authoritarian tide in European today again comes from the business elites, but in this case driven by the ideology of neoliberalism not fascism.  Neoliberalism pretentiously claims to be the guarantor of freedom – “free markets, free men” was the title of Milton Friedman’s infamous London lecture to adoring businessmen in 1974 (discussed in detail in my new book).  Reality is quite the contrary.  The neoliberal inspired market deregulation over the last thirty years has been the destroyer of freedom.  The most obvious mechanism by which this destruction occurs is the weakening of the power of trade unions and other popular organizations.  Parallel to that weakening has been rise and consolidation of the power of the financial capital to control the media, political debate and elections themselves.

Writing in 1947 in the foremost economic journal of the time, The Economic Journal, the British economist K. W. Rothschild succinctly summarized the consequences of unregulated capitalism,

…[W]hen we enter the field of rivalry between [corporate] giants, the traditional separation of the political from the economic can no longer be maintained… Fascism…has been largely brought into power by this very struggle in an attempt of the most powerful oligopolists to strengthen, through political action, their position in the labour market and vis-à-vis their smaller competitors, and finally to strike out in order to change the world market situation in their favour.

The deregulation of financial capital threatens to bring us back to capitalist authoritarianism that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s.  But this time it gathers strength with no strong popular movement in any European country to challenge it.  The absence of a movement with the strength to challenge the power of unregulated capital, plus a mainstream media supportive of neoliberalism make progressive platforms for debate such as Insight essential to the anti-authoritarian struggle.

In this environment of rising influence anti-democratic ideologies come the elections for the European Parliament.  Over the next several weeks I shall review the political scene across the Union, seeking to assess the likely outcome of the elections and what it would mean for Europeans and Americans.

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John Weeks is Professor Emeritus and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development Policy and Research, and Research on Money and Finance Group at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.