From the Welfare State to the Authoritarian State

On May 5, the day before the first Greek parliamentary election, I wrote:

When Adolf Hitler and his cohorts in the NSDAP first entered the German legislature, their share of the votes was in the single digits. During the same time the German communists made great strides, and the old mainstream parties that were supposed to be the backbone of parliamentary democracy were being associated with the Weimar Republic’s devastating economic decline. As a result, it was impossible to form a workable parliamentary majority. The legislature, which controls the executive branch in parliamentary systems, went into deadlock. The parliament was dissolved and a new election yielded similarly unworkable results. After repeated attempts over a period of three years the “old” parties had run dry of credibility and political energy, and let Hitler become chancellor, i.e., assume the executive office. The rest is well-known history. Tomorrow Sunday [May 6] Greece will hold a parliamentary election that has frightening parallels to Germany in 1930. After years of austerity policies, misguidedly used to save a government that has made untenable commitments through its welfare state, the mainstream political parties have lost a lot of their credibility with Greek voters. Extremist parties are gaining ground, both in the form of Soviet-style communists and neo-Nazis.

I also explained that the expected outcome – an impasse where extremists were pinned against each other and centrist parties were pushed to the side as frightened spectators – would only reinforce the parallels to the Weimar Republic.

After that election, on May 9, I reiterated my warning, explaining that Greece was caught between a rock and a hard place: austerity to save the welfare state, or totalitarianism.  On June 17 Greek voters chose austerity, giving (by a slim margin) the centrist New Democracy and its long-time coalition partner PASOK another chance.

This does not mean that totalitarianism has gone away. On the contrary, it is emboldened by the election results. The neo-Nazis and the Stalinists together got up to 15 percent of the vote, a share higher than in any other European country since before World War II. And this is not going to change: the austerity policies implemented by the centrist government under New Democracy and PASOK are like gasoline on the totalitarian fire.

As a reinforcement of my points on the advancement of totalitarianism in Europe, the Financial Times reports:

Despite the narrow victory of a centrist party in Sunday’s vote, almost every day extremist violence breaks out in Athens and beyond. Neo-nazis against immigrants, anarchists and leftists. Anarchists, ultra-leftists and other fringe groups of the nationalist-populist camp against riot police, mainstream politicians, journalists, liberal intellectuals, even artists. Add to this a surge in crime and rising tolerance of violence and you have a clearer picture of today’s Athens. Does it remind you of anything? That’s right. Greece’s situation recalls the Weimar Republic.

The election on Sunday re-established status quo when it comes to the Greek economy. The parties in charge will essentially get back to their previous austerity policies – they know of no other alternative, especially if they want to stay in the euro and try to save their welfare state. Since it was the austerity policies that were the immediate cause (but not the root cause) of the political turmoil that preceded the May 6 election, the status quo also extends to the forces that drive Greeks to authoritarian parties.

The Financial Times does not quite connect the dots this way, but their account of what is happening on the ground in Greece is frightening enough:

Violence (and its banalisation), hate, rage, polarisation, fear, despair and resignation. As for the police, it has already taken sides: neo-nazis won by a landslide in polling stations where officers were assigned to vote. … The centre-right New Democracy party may have edged ahead, but the parliament, for the first time in Greek history, will be full of extremists. Besides the neo-nazis and a Stalinist communist party there is Syriza, whose leader is a fan of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.

As I explained on Saturday, if Syriza could, it would in fact turn Greece into a new Venezuela.

The Financial Times again:

[Neo-Nazi] Golden Dawn members have already made it clear they would come down hard on any member of parliament saying something they strongly disapprove of. How did Greece, the birthplace of democracy, come to have a parliament full of hammers, sickles and swastikas? This is not how it was ever meant to be.

Again: if you try to save the welfare state by means of austerity, you will eventually bring about political extremism. In a limited sense that was actually what they were trying to do in Weimar Germany; it is what Hugo Chavez has been trying to do in Venezuela (though on a grander scale) and it is what the Greek government has been trying to do for more than two years. With clearly visible results.

The Financial Times actually echoes some of my earlier conclusions regarding Greece:

…welfare populism, cronyism, statism and corruption can describe the Greek political system for most of the period from 1981. This is why Greek people have finally punished the two former main parties (New Democracy and the social-democratic Pasok party) for leading Greece into a horrible economic crisis with huge debts and deficits and a corrupt, inefficient state, unfit for reform and captured by special interests. This failure of the mainstream political system and of the short-sighted, growth-stifling austerity policies enforced by the European leadership led Greece to the precipice.

And once there, the Greek people stared down into the abyss of totalitarianism and decided to take a step back, right back into the status quo they were trying to leave. But with all of their problems remaining unsolved, it is very likely that they will soon again find themselves on the edge of that abyss.

Is there a way out of this mess? Probably not. The Financial Times points to the mounting task ahead of the new government. While having to acknowledge that 41 percent of the voters chose totalitarians of one flavor or another,

…more than 50 per cent of Greeks voted for parties strongly committed to European unification. These parties will probably form a government that must achieve the impossible: renegotiate better bailout terms and enforce reforms in the face of fierce opposition from Syriza. Mario Vargas Llosa wrote recently in El Pais that “Greece is the symbol of Europe and symbols cannot be abolished without that which they embody collapsing and degenerating into the barbaric confusion of irrationality and violence that Greek civilization liberated us from”. Yet Greece is only a small step away from civil unrest and total collapse.

There is one other alternative. Abolish the welfare state. Liberate the country from the shackles of destructive entitlements, stifling taxes and onerous regulations.

It is an almost insurmountable task, for sure, but all other alternatives are worse. If Greece can’t liberate itself of the welfare state, then totalitarianism is all that remains.