A spectre is haunting Europe. This spectre is no longer that of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and the frankly odd metaphor with which they open The Communist Manifesto. Although scary, Communism hadn’t died and come back to life again. Today the metaphor works as the spectre that haunts Europe is something we all thought was dead: Nazism. Throughout the post-war years, Hitler’s discredited ideology only survived in crumb-sized enclaves, cut off from civilized intercourse, easy prey to Louis Theroux’s documentaries. Or it remained as a petulant echo in the hyperbole of student politics, shouting like Rick from The Young Ones ‘fascist’ to anyone who wasn’t Ken Livingstone.
But today we are waking up to an election result in Germany which places Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany party, the ADF, as the third largest party in Germany with a projected 93 seats in the Bundestag at the time of writing. [Frauke has since resigned the party during a bizarre press conference.] And to be clear the ADF are not a party who have skillfully disassociated themselves from the far right’s recent history in Germany. Rather, they have trod their way through: criticizing the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin; stating that German soldiers who fought in the Second World War should be honoured and calling previous governments ‘puppets of the victors of World War 2’.
The victory of the ADF is only the latest bobbing substance on a rising tide of far right populism throughout Europe. In France, the National Front got into a run-off vote for the presidency as did the Freedom Party in Austria. Both ultimately lost but they asserted widespread mainstream support. While in Poland and Hungary far right parties are currently in power and are rebuilding their polities into increasingly authoritarian regimes. The Netherlands has Geert Wilders; Italy has the anti-immigrant Northern League and Greece, the Golden Dawn. Only Spain – with its own painful memories – seems to have kept the fascists on the fringes. In Great Britain, the power of UKIP seems to be on the wane but this is due to a) internal wrangling and b) having essentially done what they came to do.
So what is the Why?
The influx of immigrants, accelerating with the refugee crisis; the jagged shocks of terrorism; the complacency of mainstream parties and the economic instability and stagnation following the financial crisis have all fueled a resurgent populist anger. The far right argument is simplistic and frequently enthusiastically inaccurate. But in that sense it has a viral advantage over reality-based politics. The simplicity cuts through the painful thinking and compromise involved with a nuanced and realistic apprehension of the world that actually exists. Building walls and fences, chanting in unison and clicking on a story that confirms our prejudices releases dopamine the way slamming a door does. It isn’t an argument; it is the violent ending of all argument. And once you start slamming doors, it becomes very difficult to stop.
The mainstream political parties have also let this happen. In Germany, Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the politically opposed Social Democrats ruled in two broad coalitions – 2005-2009 and 2013-2017 – which has meant that the despairing argument ‘they’re all the same’ becomes literally true. The rush to the center in the nineties meant that ideological differences ended up as window-dressing to what was essentially two competing versions of the establishment. Whether Tony Blair’s New Labour or Bill Clinton’s Third Way, the left was systematically erased and any radical critique of society seen as passe, as following 1989, history had kind of finished, hadn’t it? Records become rooted in administration rather than any grander narrative. And ‘leaders’ have consistently positioned themselves as actors who respond to crises, in the same way that weather vanes respond to weather. In fact all the major problems assaulting Europe are treated like the weather: unpredictable but at the same time perfectly foreseeable. We might not know when it’s going to rain, but we know it will – sooner or later – rain. All politicians – left and right – have a tendency to resort to the phrase: ‘Many people in this country feel…’ which they can then use as a way of pursuing policies and abnegating their own responsibilities. The feelings of the people, unfortunately, are often wrong. The feelings of the people are open to manipulation by the algorithms of the Russian security services. The feelings of the people are not always dominated by what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’.
The rise of the populist right is a crisis that could transform Europe and the world into a much darker place in which inhumanity and racism drive policy. We desperately need a response and that response can no longer be an apolitical centrism designed to offend as few people as possible. It calls for more than tinkering with a global economic system which is no longer fit for purpose and which is contributing to the ruination of the environment in which we live. Epochal – potentially apocalyptic – changes are happening – environmental, technological, in the world of work and the movements of people – and to deal with those changes, a narrative, a dramatic inspiring narrative, is required that wasn’t written in the 19th Century by Karl Marx or Adam Smith, or the 20th Century by Hitler or Mussolini. We need a 21st Century narrative and we need it now.