We all know what the welfare state looks like when it is on the rise: friendly, compassionate, handing out entitlements right and left while making lavish promises from here to the next Big Bang. We also know what the welfare state looks like when it is at its maturity point: heavy-set, short of breath trying to keep up with the everyday chores of paying for its promises while resting on the backs of taxpayers.
What we don’t know much about is what the welfare state looks like when it is crumbling. But we do know this:
- The decline of the welfare state comes in the form of ever nastier austerity policies; and
- Austerity makes a country poorer and sentences young generations to a life less prosperous than the one their parents had.
Another ugly feature of the crumbling phase of the welfare state is it paves the way for all sorts of totalitarian movementss to come out of the woodwork. They see an opportunity to tie parliamentary democracy and mainstream parties to the failure of the welfare state. Pointing to how the welfare state is defaulting on its promises, boot-stomping authoritarians vow to restore these promises – but first people must accept to punish the scapegoats that fascists portray as the causes of the failure of the welfare state.
In Weimar Germany the Jews were blamed for the collapse of a welfare state which, by that time, had existed in a limited form since Bismarck and the 1870s.
In today’s Greece, where the welfare state is falling apart as we speak, a modern breed of totalitarians are on their way in to the parliament in this coming Sunday’s elections. Bloomberg Businessweek reports:
Theodore Couloumbis experienced the Nazi occupation of Greece as a boy and 70 years later he’s worried he’ll witness the return of stiff-armed salutes and fascist flags. The Golden Dawn party may enter the parliament in Athens for the first time after May 6 elections, current polls show, as rising anti-immigrant sentiment among austerity-hit Greeks spurs support for groups formerly on the political fringes. Ninety percent of people surveyed for a To Vima newspaper poll published on April 9 said immigrants are responsible for an increase in violence and crime.
Before we listen to more from Bloomberg on the subject, let us first acknowledge that there are reports from various European countries that actually do show that non-European immigrants are over-represented in crime statistics. The reasons for this have nothing to do with their race, but is more often the result of the fact that they lack the experience of living in an advanced open society – it is not easy coming from a brutal dictatorship in, e.g., north-east Africa to a peaceful democracy where culture, social competence and a strong intellect are more life skills important than brute force. Anyone can acquire those skills, but too many people come straight out of a harsh, poor and brutal life under the boots of a military government directly onto the streets of Europe without even a basic understanding of how to assimilate.
Add to this the fact that Europe already has a high rate of unemployment – which by the way is now the highest it has been since the euro was created – and uneducated immigrants from rural Africa have virtually no chance of establishing themselves as productive citizens of Europe. Under economic freedom their chances would be far better, but instead Europe insists on trying to save its welfare state. The result: a high crime rate among immigrants.
The way out of this situation if of course to do away with the welfare state, ring the economic freedom bells all over Europe and let people explore their opportunities to the fullest. Economic freedom always defeats statism as an engine of prosperity, but such arguments tend to fall on deaf ears in Europe. Apparently, the rulers of the Old World are hellbent on proving what common sense has already established, namely that any attempt to save the welfare state will lead to unemployment, a mediocre lifestyle without opportunities – and eventually a rising threat of totalitarianism.
Back now to the Bloomberg report:
The group [Golden Dawn] is known for its violent clashes in immigrant neighborhoods and for a red and black party logo resembling a disentangled swastika. … Golden Dawn’s charter says its “main ideal and belief is the nation-tribe” and that “only men and women of Greek descent and consciousness should have full political rights.” … The party wants land mines placed on the Greek-Turkish border to stop illegal immigrants entering the country and cancellation of Greek loan accords with the European Union and International Monetary Fund. It also calls for wiping out debt accumulated since 1974 that’s deemed “illegal and burdensome.” Greek banks that get state funds should be nationalized, as should all natural resources, the party’s program says.
And there you have it. Classic European fascism is back again. And it is not just their political agenda that pays homage to those who marched down Unter den Linden two generations ago – their “shoeleather politics” takes another page out of the brown book:
Golden Dawn is bolstering support by organizing security patrols in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods and by running food banks for Greeks suffering from five years of recession and unemployment of almost 22 percent. “I’m voting for Golden Dawn because I want all the immigrants to leave,” Maria Papageorgiou, 52, said in an interview in the Athens neighborhood where she has lived all her life. “There’s a high crime rate, it’s a miserable situation. They should leave and go back to their countries. Or maybe the Germans can take them.”
As if to wipe out the last shred of a doubt of what has brought fascism back on the political scene in Greece, Bloomberg notes:
At stake in the election is whether the next Greek government can implement the austerity measures on which bailout funds and euro membership depend. The Athens Stock Exchange has lost 61 percent of its value over the last two years. An index of Greek banks dropped 73 percent in the last 12 months. Greek government bonds maturing in February 2023 are yielding 20.55 percent compared with 18.28 percent on March 14, the day after the country’s credit rating was lifted out of the default category by Fitch Ratings following the agreement of a debt swap.
In other words: there is a political continuum from the efforts to save the crumbling welfare state to the rise of totalitarianism. And since the austerity measures in Greece are not different from those being deployed in other European countries, it comes as no surprise that Bloomberg notes what I explained in my Monday column in the Conservative Daily News, namely that totalitarian movements are on the rise all over Europe. Here is what I wrote:
As a result of a continuous downward spiral of unemployment, higher taxes and economic deprivation, Europeans are becoming increasingly desperate. Even politically. Support for extremist political parties is rising all across the European Union. in the harsh economic realities created by a crumbling welfare state and destructive austerity policies, authoritarian political movements are experiencing a new dawn. Not surprisingly, Greece is the scene of one of the strongest surges in extremism. Nazis and Soviet-style Communists are rapidly gaining ground among voters and could make big gains in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In France, the leader of the National Front, Marine LePen, got 20 percent of the votes in the first round of the presidential election, placing her a close third among all voters. Her support among first-time voters surpassed that of any other candidate, which puts her party in a very favorable position for local and regional elections in the next few years. In Hungary, one of the youngest members of the EU, the new government has brought back an old-style, dingy European form of nationalism that is openly threatening the country’s parliamentary democracy. The success of the Fidesz and Jobbik parties was built on deep dissatisfaction among Hungarians with the austerity policies forced upon them by the European Union. Even Britain, often considered the pillar of classic European liberalism, freedom and democracy, is tilting toward the shadows. The British National Party, which gained significantly in opinion polls back in 2009, seems to have survived internal faction-fighting and is a frighteningly resilient player on the British political scene. Its fellow traveller on the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, the English Defense League, is a fast-growing, street-wise anti-immigration movement with an authoritarian touch and a disdain for the British parliamentary system. In Sweden, the openly un-democratic National Democrats have seats in several city councils and are preparing for participation in the 2014 national parliamentary elections.
Golden Dawn’s rise comes as far-right or nationalist parties are surging in a number of European countries including Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands and France, where anti- immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen won 17.9 percent in the first round of presidential elections on April 22.
There are different numbers in European media on the share for LePen, but be that as it may. She came in third, she made scary inroads into the youth vote, and she is young enough (47) to still be a rising star in French politics. Like others of her kind around Europe, Marine LePen is going to be around for a long time.
It is not a very pleasant experience to try to assess the long-term consequences of the rise of fascism and authoritarian nationalism in Europe. If we disregard for a moment the moral aspects of totalitarianism, a strictly economic analysis shows that these guys would take Europe from bad to worse. Not only do fascists want to keep the welfare state, but they also want to increase government’s control over the economy. The proposal to nationalize banks in Greece is just one example, but it is significant for how fascists think about the economy.
The economic policies of fascist movements may seem an eclectic subject to discuss given everything else that totalitarianism does to a society. But one should not underestimate the role of the economy: after all, it is the economic crisis that paves the way for these totalitarians to enter the stage. If they gain enough political clout to influence fiscal policy, they will take to measures that most certainly will wreak havoc on an already badly wounded economy. More government will stifle the private sector, and nationalizations will have the same effect as everywhere: they will turn businesses into government bureaucracies.
As a result, this new generation of fascists will make life in Europe even worse. Since they are totalitarians, they will respond to rising desperation with brute force.
It may take a long time before Europe gets to that point. But let us not forget that it was only two years ago that no one thought that Europe’s welfare states would be on the verge of collapse, as they are now. Things can happen very quickly once the perceived or real stability of the current European economy and its politiccs have withered away.
The path from the welfare state to austerity to authoritarianism is universal. It exists, even here in America. We are fortunate enough to “only” be on the doorstep of it: we still have time to turn around and reform away our welfare state in an orderly fashion. Europe’s crisis is a good motivator for us to do so; if we do nothing, on the other hand, then Greece’s fate is ours.