Respectable consensus on the rising tide of populism in the West is that there is no need to panic. Experts focusing on each country threatened usually by far-right populism explain that these radical parties are either tools of the existing parties or will have to govern in the normal way.
These ideas are widely expressed about the US president-elect: “Trump will turn out to be a normal right wing republican president.” “Trump will be dependent on the Republican establishment to be able to govern.” “Trump will have to adapt to reality when faced with the complications of the real world.” Obama is touring the world calming the nerves of world leaders, and subtly warning that any strong “overreaction” to the Trump presidency would more likely lead to their worst fears becoming true.
The same kind of calming statements are applied to the rising aggression of Russia’s and China’s foreign policies. Russia has a diminished economy about size of Spain, which cannot maintain Putin’s imperialistic posturing. China’s economy is dependent on ever increasing world trade, and needs this to deal with simmering social pressures and mountains of corporate debt.
Today the far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer is set to become the next Austrian president [5/12/16 update: only 46% voted for the far-right candidate, so no need to worry]. Next year’s April presidential election in France will be between Marine Le-Pen and Françoise Fillon. Given the disarray of the socialists, the French public will be given a choice between the chauvinistic promises of the far-right Front National, and the hair shirt austerity of Fillion’s centre right UMP. Currently Fillion is well ahead of Le Pen in polls about this probable run off. A political insurgency is possible for Le Pen, because a despondent nation has little appetite for Fillon’s message of “spend less and work harder”. With Russian money Le Pen will have the funds to get her false hopeful messages out to the French people.
In March next year Geert Wilders Freedom Party is set to be the largest single party in the Dutch House of Representatives. He will still need to form a coalition with at least two other parties to form a government. His party has managed to be an informal partner in an earlier coalition between the centre right VVD and CDA.
The UK is set to leave the European Union after the referendum vote last June. Italy’s populist Five Star Movement is working hard to defeat the referendum on constitutional reform being held today [update 5/1/216: 59% did vote against reforming Italian constitution, so starting the path to possible Italexit]. The current government has vowed to resign, which will lead to an election and a new coalition led by the Five Star Movement. This new government will introduce a referendum on leaving the European Union, which appears likely.
In Germany the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has come from nowhere to poll 15% of potential votes in the German Federal Elections next August. They may do better after the expected upheavals described above. It is unlikely AfD would be part of the governing coalition, but they will be able to limit the government’s room for manoeuvre by gaining support from criticism of any necessary actions to strengthen the European Union.
There are plenty of reasons to panic when the pieces are considered as a whole. The truth is that since the end of the Cold War authoritarianism has lost any pretense to be cloaked in ideologues of the extreme left and right. We have today a naked authoritarianism which seeks to undermine representational government everywhere. No grand conspiracy is needed, just the reality that corrupt authoritarian governments, can use each other’s support to enrich themselves and secure their power.
There is also a disturbing widely reported study by Monk and Foa in Journal of Democracy this year. The number of people born in the 1980s (ie in their thirties) who feel it is essential to live in a democracy has fallen to nearly 25% in US and Britain. This means that in principle only 25% of the population in their thirties would actively fight to defend democracy in their own countries, let alone abroad. The figure for Holland is 30%, Sweden is 60% with an average of 40% in Europe for this age group.
Democracy is in decline, and this will continue to plummet sharply in the near future if nothing substantial is done.
An alarming symptom of this is the apathy ordinary people in the West have shown towards the Arab Democratic Uprising in Europe’s neighbouring region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Few Western progressives have taken a factual knife to the soft underbelly of rhetoric that has successfully smeared this uprising. The line that real effective Western support for this uprising is a continuation of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions is widely accepted. Intervention in Libya and Syria is criticised for lack of success, while few point out that there has been a chronic lack of support from the West. Lastly it is widely ignored that these uprisings are also fighting a strong counter revolution financed by regional dictatorships desperate to ensure the failure of representative government in MENA.
Instead these uprisings are described as chaotic, lacking vision and motivated by extremism. The old colonial line is unconsciously trotted out about it taking hundreds of years to create the culture and institutions needed for democracy, and that the West has some monopoly of these. The truth is that the sins ascribed to the Arab Democratic Uprising are really the sins of progressives in the West. We lack organisation, lack vision and hold unreflectively to an extreme ideology shared by the majority of society. A paradoxical obsession with individualism, which in the name of populism and freedom seeks to empower authoritarian governments run by elites, who rather than tackle the excessive power of elites offer to redirect resources from maligned minorities.
These authoritarian governments will in turn support and encourage each other. The global economy sits on a pinnacle of unsustainable debt (corporate, government and private). Solving the inevitable further major recessions requires international partnership, which is less likely in a world of authoritarian governments. The economic crisis then fuels more authoritarianism making the crisis deeper in a self-perpetuating feedback loop.
A decisive shift in progressive politics is needed. There is clearly an extremely urgent need to advert the turn to authoritarianism. A new economics that like Keynesianism before it finds innovative ways to thrust society into business. Successful societies need to erode but not demolish the boundaries of private property and enterprise. A system where income is taxed by the state, but can also effectively be generated from hidden wealth is not sustainable. In the same sense businesses cannot be both moderate organisations and part of anarchic brutal markets.
Extreme ideas of excessive individualism, collectivism, anarchy or organisation need to be binned. It should be obvious that extreme politics leads to societies dominated by destructive barriers, it is just where they are built that changes. Even anarchistic societies gives rise to cliques who build barriers around themselves, and indulge in chauvinistic fantasies of their entitlement.
A movement built on representative government, empowerment and the erosion of barriers is needed. New inspiration flows from activists trying to shift MENA societies away from government by elites. The West needs their ideas and spirit to prevent the victory of authoritarianism in Europe and the United States.
We should be aware that it is now reasonable and allowable to panic, and that we are all Syrians now, with the only comfort of solidarity.