By Martin James
As the Eurozone crisis moves towards some kind of conclusion, the far-right are gaining ground across Europe. Mainstream commentators are noting the parallels with the 1930s, but there is one key difference: then, there was an organised, motivated working class ready to mount resistance. Today, the drift to the right faces no such obstacle.
‘The chief of the opposition’
In the recent French presidential elections, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen came third in the first round with a historic 17.9% of the vote, exceeding the 16.8% her father achieved at the same point in the contest in 2002 before coming second overall. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left Front coalition backed by the once-mighty French Communist Party and who had made the defeat of Le Pen an explicit campaign objective, trailed in a distant fourth on 11%. Prior to the election, the Guardian had stated that ‘Mélenchon is locked in a vicious battle with Le Pen for the protest and working class vote’. Evidently, Le Pen won that battle, winning ‘a higher percentage of the working class vote than any other candidate’ (link).
The Financial Times has declared Marine Le Pen to be ‘the third force in French politics’, and has noted that she ‘managed to expand her support beyond its traditional base among male factory workers in the industrially blighted north and east of the country. The country’s so-called “invisibles”, who back Ms Le Pen, now include increasing numbers of women, countryside-dwellers and poorly
Significantly, Mélenchon called on his supporters to transfer their support to the centre-left candidate Franois Hollande in the second round of voting, while in contrast Le Pen refused to endorse the centre-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy or anyone else: she instead stated her intention ‘to “become the chief of the opposition” and cast a blank ballot. Le Pen’s success sets the scene for the French parliamentary elections in June, where the FN ‘hopes to pick up as many as 15 seats – including one for an increasingly self-assured Ms Le Pen’ (link).
The success of the far-right in France is far from an isolated occurrence in Europe. In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party has recently brought down the minority liberal-conservative coalition government by refusing to support its proposed austerity budget, prompting elections in September. In the recent Greek elections the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party took 7% of the vote (up from 0.23% three years ago), earning them 21 seats and becoming ‘the most extreme right-wing party to sit in parliament since Greece returned to democracy after the fall of a military dictatorship in 1974′ (link): according to former Greek deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos, ‘In the places where the police voted, the fascists got 25 per cent’ (link). In 2010, the Seden Democrats entered the Swedish parliament for the first time, winning 20 seats; in Denmark, the People’s Party are the third biggest in that country’s parliament; in Austria, the Freedom Party are ‘neck and neck with the country’s two largest mainstream parties in the polls’ (link), while in 2011 the True Finns took 19% in the Finnish elections, making them the third biggest party in the Finnish parliament.
‘”Golden Dawn has cleaned up Athens!”‘
With regards to France, almost as significant as the fact that 6.4m French voters backed an explicitly fascist candidate is the wider effect the Front National is having on French politics. The Front’s presence has not only grown in its own right, it has pulled the centre ground of French politics to the right. Throughout the presidential electoral campaign (and in the years preceding it) Sarkozy constantly attempted to match or appropriate the Front’s themes and rhetoric, either to hive of some of their support or to prevent losing more of his own. Among other things, Sarkozy stated that there are “too many foreigners” in France (link) and claimed that “the biggest concern of French people is halal meat” (link), a direct response to a fallacious statement by Le Pen that “all the abattoirs in the Paris region” produced halal meat. An NF adviser, Nicolas Bay, stated that “Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to renew 2007 [the previous Presidential election] by encroaching on our turf. That means we have to go on the offensive as we have no intention of letting him do it again” (link).
Likewise, in the Greek elections the centre-left PASOK and centre-right New Democracy both ran ‘xenophobic campaigns. ND has said it intends to repeal a law which grants Greek citizenship to children born in Greece to immigrant parents. And cabinet member Michalis Chrysochoidis, of PASOK, has announced “clean up operations” whereby illegal immigrants are to be rounded up in encampments and then deported. When he recently took a stroll through the center of Athens to collect accolades for his commitment to the cause, some called out to him: “Golden Dawn has cleaned up Athens!”‘ (link). As has been noted elsewhere, ‘the real potency of the fascist renaissance across Europe is far better judged by how easily its appearance on a national stage can first panic, and then stampede, an erstwhile political centre to the right’.
‘I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments’
The UK has not been immune to these pressures. In March 2011 David Cameron gave a speech in Munich attacking ‘state multiculturalism’ (link). Marine Le Pen immediately seized on this as endorsement of the Front’s agenda, saying that Cameron’s speech was ‘exactly the type of statement that has barred us from public life for 30 years. I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments. I can only congratulate him.’ The BNP’s Nick Griffin described Cameron’s remarks as ‘A further huge leap for our ideas into the political mainstream… A few years ago we had the then Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett admitting that ‘multiculturalism has failed’. Then Gordon Brown used and legitimised our call for ‘British Jobs for British Workers’… And now we have the Prime Minister admitting that the British National Party [was right] in our 30-year campaign against the unworkable folly of multiculturalism’.
Perhaps more significantly, in France the FN is beginning to set the agenda on matters of economic policy as well. Le Pen’s rhetoric has long referenced economic protectionism: this is the base of her appeal to France’s industrial workers. During the election campaign Sarkozy, the avowed advocate of free markets and the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic model, also engaged in such anti-free trade rhetoric (link). As the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman said of the French elections: ‘All the candidates, from the extreme left to the extreme right, campaigned against financial markets and in favour of even higher taxes on the rich. While the candidates emphasised their differences, what was most striking as an outsider was how similar they all were: with their attacks on globalisation and on finance, their praise of the French social model, their lists of glorious episodes from French history and their insistence that France was not just any old country, but a model for the world’ (link).
Yet with such an anti-capitalist mood in the air, the French working class are turning to the right, not the left: it is the fascists, and not just in France, who are able to present themselves as the radical alternative. It is enormously instructive that Mélenchon called on his supporters to vote for Hollande, while Le Pen refused to endorse anyone: at the moment of truth, Mélenchon acted to prop up the centre which has been discredited in the eyes of the French working class, while Le Pen refused to do any such thing. Le Pen is seen as the radical alternative because she is more radical.
The defeat of Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral election is a further demonstration of how the ‘left’ has managed to alienate a chunk of its core support. London is a Labour-leaning city, Labour are ahead in the polls and the Tories had a disastrous night nationally – yet in the capital they still won the most high profile contest of the night. Why? There are many reasons, but part of it can surely be explained by a reaction of London’s white working class against Livingstone’s opportunistic embrace of divisive identity politics: the Greater London Authority’s own research found that between the 2004 and 2008 Mayoral elections ‘those areas with a higher percentage of the population listed as White British became less likely to vote for the Labour candidate’ (link).
The actions of supposedly left-wing politicians like Livingstone and George Galloway in appealing to a narrow ethnic, and particularly Muslim, nationalist vote is simply the flipside of the likes of Le Pen demonising those self-same groups: in both cases the strategy divides and polarises the working class along ethnic lines, instead of uniting it. It is this kind of ‘multiculturalism’ which the BNP themselves support, for transparent reasons. It is to be hoped that the defeat of Livingstone marks the end for this type of identity politics, which Livingstone himself did so much to create and normalise.
21st century fascism
Another factor in the FN’s success is the detoxification of their brand under Marine Le Pen. Younger and more telegenic than her father, her elevation has seen the dumping of the FN’s World War II, anti-Semitic baggage. It is hostility to Islam rather than Jewry which provides the racial animus behind today’s FN. The same applies to much of the resurgent far-right in western Europe (although anti-Semitism remains a factor the further east you go): the only thing extreme about Anders Breivik is the lengths he went to in pursuit of his worldview. His worldview itself – based on an opposition to ‘multiculturalism’, ‘cultural Marxism’ and ‘Islamification’ – is common currency for the European far-right from Burnley to Vienna: one can hear much the same thing from the FN, the BNP or Norway’s Progress Party, the second largest grouping in the Norwegian parliament and who once had Breivik as a member.
The far-right have worked for years to put themselves in the position they are in today. A senior FN spokesman said in 1997: ‘People are coming to us because we go to them… We are there on the street, on the landings of the tower blocks. People see we don’t have horns. They see our ideas are their ideas. And they don’t see the other parties at all’ (link). The left hasn’t been on the landings of the tower blocks, in France or anywhere else, which is largely why this 21st century fascism is in pole position to reap the rewards as the economic crisis proceeds.
What success the BNP have had has been from adopting this ‘landings’ strategy. At present, the BNP do not have the capability to take full advantage of the political opportunities available to them. Unlike the FN (the gold standard for fascist parties of this type), the BNP have not had thirty-odd years of uninterrupted development and maturation. When ‘catch-up’ success rapidly came their way after adopting the ‘Euronationalist’ strategy – they attracted the attention of the establishment (including, we can assume, the security services) and have been significantly debilitated as a result.
Another effect of their meteoric rise from electoral obscurity was psychological: one moment they were running Blood & Honour gigs in places like Thornton Heath; the next they were forming the opposition in local councils, appearing on Question Time and making speeches to the European Parliament without any time to grow a solid middle management and adjust mentally and politically.
But despite these setbacks, the underlying conditions which facilitated the BNP’s rise are still there: disillusionment with the neo-liberal centre and a Labour party that has turned its back on the working class, producing a political vacuum. There is no reason to assume that the BNP is permanently impaired or cannot learn their lessons; but even if that were so, the opportunity remains for some other right-wing formation to fill the vacuum (it is notable that UKIP did well at the recent local elections, a new phenomenon for them).
‘The more people were personally hit by the economic crisis, the more they turned away from democracy’
The economic crisis is discrediting the mainstream capitalist order, and the political centre is coming under the most pressure where the economic crisis is most acute. The recent Greek elections saw 70% of votes go to parties of the left and right opposed to the current austerity programme, which is being forced upon Greece by the ‘troika’ of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a condition of the bail-out money which is keeping the country afloat. Unlike elsewhere, much of the protest vote in Greece is going to the left: as the BBC’s Paul Mason has noted, Greece is a country where ‘Marxism has massive prestige due to its role in both the [WWII] anti-fascist resistance and in the 1946-49 Civil War’ (link). Such historically favourable conditions do not exist in many other places.
In Greece, we are now witnessing a clear stand-off between democratic expression and capitalist necessity; between the will of the people and the will of international economic institutions. The Greek people want to stay in the Euro, but cannot swallow further cuts to their standard of living; for the ‘troika’, the price the Greeks must pay to stay in the Euro is precisely further cuts to their standard of living, for the alternative (other than Greek exit) is inflation and loss of competitiveness for Germany and the other Euro creditor economies, which they cannot entertain. Which will win out? What will happen if Greece’s June elections give a clear mandate to the anti-austerity forces? Will the views of the Greek people be given any weight? Or will the troika continue to inflict its liquidationist policies upon them?
Holding the Euro together even this far has required elected leaders in Greece and Italy being deposed and replaced by unelected ‘technocrats’, economic policy autonomy being removed from nations in receipt of bail-out money and the centralisation of decision-making power in the hands of the ‘troika’. The only way for the Euro to be rescued in its present form and scope would be through the creation of Eurozone-wide economic and fiscal union, which would require a level of political unification for which there is no democratic support. So while any break-up of the Eurozone and the economic depression that may well follow it would be a boon for the far-right, the survival of the Euro also poses a similar, if different, threat to democracy. And what we are witnessing now in Greece illustrates a more fundamental point: capitalism does not need political democracy – in fact, it often functions better without it.
In 2011 a report from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found that ‘support for democracy and markets… has declined in many of the more advanced transition countries, including all the new EU members except Bulgaria [since 2006]… the more people were personally hit by the [economic] crisis, the more they turned away from democracy and free markets’ (link).
As the report shows, the very idea of democracy is coming under question. The economic crisis is catalysing this – the historian Mark Mazower has written that ‘The crisis has thrown into question the very idea that the world can be governed’ (link) – but on a more fundamental level it is to do with the defeat of socialism as a transformative, progressive force. Socialism was meant to take mankind beyond mere capitalist democracy into more substantive forms of political and economic democracy, but this project did not succeed. Now, the concept of ‘democracy’ is synonymous solely with liberal capitalism. The only thing liberal capitalism offers is the prospect of increased material wealth, and now even this can no longer be guaranteed.
Fidesz or Jobbik
The American Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has noted these trends, and has pointed to one European country in particular as a possible harbinger of the future: Hungary. In 2010 the right-wing Fidesz won an overwhelming 226 of the 386 seats in the Hungarian parliament (the Socialist party coming second with 48) due to, in Krugman’s words, Hungary suffering ‘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’. In coalition with the Christian People’s Democratic Party, Fidesz have a sufficient majority to change the Hungarian constitution, with the following results:
‘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.’ (link)
But Fidesz are not alone: coming third in 2010 was Jobbik, described by Krugman as ‘a nightmare out of the 1930s: it’s anti-Roma (Gypsy), it’s anti-Semitic, and it even had a paramilitary arm… 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’.
With the outlook for democracy looking decidedly cloudy in much of Europe, Fidesz or Jobbik illustrate two of the fates that the future may hold: on one hand creeping state authoritarianism reminiscent of modern day Russia; on the other, if the worst case economic scenario comes to pass, something resembling a re-run of the interwar period. With neo-liberalism discredited and the far-right in the ascendant (and working to a proven strategy), it is not scaremongering to speculate in this way. There is a counter-strategy: for those radically opposed to fascism and neo-liberalism to get on the landings and take on the fascists there, by engaging with and responding to working class concerns, and articulating progressive, pro-working class solutions. That is where battle is to be joined, for now. But if that challenge is not taken up, the battles against fascism in the future will likely be considerably more daunting.
Indeed as bad as things are, we are considerably further down the track than it may appear, for one critical but widely ignored reason. Unlike the 1920s when Social Democracy and Communism seemed to promise the working class a way out of the economic crisis, today, nearly a century later, the liberal Left across Europe is busily losing touch with, abandoning, or being abandoned by what was formerly its core constituency. And so, should this drift continue without some decisive intervention, what section of society is it exactly, when events accelerate or take a sudden turn for the worse, that we anticipate will man the barricades in their stead?
 Sean Birchall (2010), Beating the Fascists: the untold story of Anti-Fascist Action (London: Freedom Press), p17.
This article first appeared on the Independent Working Class Association website and can be viewed here.