Europe: The persistence of racism & the fascist threat
by KEVIN OVENDEN
Below are the points, updated and a little amplified, I made in a contribution to the highly successful Unite Against Fascism conference in London on 2 March. The speech (and I’ve incorporated my summing up) was in a workshop with Petros Constantinou from Greece, Marwan Mohammed from France and Glyn Ford MEP from Britain, who all made extremely clear and thought-provoking contributions.
1) The rise of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and of a spectrum of forces to the Right of the traditional centre-right in Europe is pronounced. It is not ephemeral. I want to outline:
- Why this is not a temporary aberration that will of its own accord peak and be cyclically absorbed back into the political centre
- The underlying processes that mean this is a serious threat, processes accelerated by the austerity offensive, but which are more profoundly rooted in European society and politics
- That Britain is a part of this dynamic, notwithstanding the current parlous state of the fascist Right
- Some strategic considerations that we need to begin/further a conversation over in order to meet the exact nature of the threat we face, including the rise of UKIP, and develop the kind of mass response that will be necessary to have political effect, not least on the outcome of the European elections in 2014, where we are aiming at a fascist-free cohort of MEPs from Britain: Griffin and Brons out.
2) When Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National first broke through in the Dreux by-election in 1983, most commentators described it as a temporary phenomenon comparable to the right-wing anti-tax rebellion led by Pierre Poujade (on whose ticket a young Le Pen was elected to parliament) that would, as in the 1950s, fade from view after a couple of years. It was described as a dying reflex of the ageing Algerian war generation. Nineteen years later, Le Pen came second in the French presidential election and entered the run-off against the centre-right’s Jacques Chirac. Last year his daughter took 18 percent of the vote in the presidential election.
When Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party came second in the Austrian general election of 2000, the house journal of British liberalism, The Guardian, ran an editorial under the headline, referencing the Ultravox song, “It Means Nothing To Me, Oh Vienna”. Despite the shock, politics was predicted to return to “normal” after a few years. It hasn’t. The radical Right has consolidated in Austria and, as elsewhere, its racism has been mainstreamed.
If a ship is listing to the Right and taking on water, it will not automatically correct itself. For that to happen means taking to the bilge pumps — and there is a large amount of filthy bilge water that has accumulated, and not just in the last five years but over the last generation.
3) That a period of intense capitalist crisis produces openings for the far Right and fascism is pretty much a journalistic commonplace. There is a large element of truth, of course. Economic despair is a breeding ground for all sorts of scapegoating ideologies and for political forces that seek to utilise them. But it is not the case that there is a simple, direct relationship between declining GDP and living standards and the rise of, for example, the Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, the vote for Marine Le Pen in France, and other far Right breakthroughs. The process is mediated by politics. The elites enforcing austerity are not innocent bystanders. It’s not that they have “unfortunately” created the conditions for the far Right to grow and that, by implication, when the crisis ends the far Right will be marginalised by the liberal establishment. The politics that the elites have turned to in order to drive austerity have legitimised the far Right. And they have intensified processes that began before the current crisis.
There are four ways in which this has manifested:
The War on Terror, of course, enormously accelerated Islamophobia. There was deliberate demonisation of Muslims — in words and in deeds, such as a plethora of “security” measures, by politicians of the centre-right and centre-left across Europe. There was also a necessity in Islamophobia as ideological counterpart of the War on Terror, as there was for anti-Communism during the Cold War. If there was to be no rational apprehension of why there was such bitterness in the Middle East and Muslim world, of why there was such ferocious resistance in Iraq, then the ineluctable explanation was that Muslims were fundamentally irrational, driven by hostility to progress and civilisation.
These Islamophobic themes were intensified following 9/11, but they predated them.
There is a long history of Western engagement with the Middle East and Muslims on which Islamophobic sentiment can draw. French and Austrian diplomats cited the Ottoman Turks begin thrown back at the gates of Vienna in 1683 in their ferocious opposition to modern Turkey’s ascension to the European Union. The current wave of Islamophobia can be dated from 1989 and the Salman Rushdie furore. A large cohort of the European intelligentsia moved in the direction of seeing Muslims, as Muslims, as fundamentally fundamentalist, intolerant and outside of European or Western or National values.
The 1990s saw something of a re-coding of racism in much of Western Europe. In France it was driven by what some have called retrospectively “the First War on Terror”. Fearing a spillover of the Algerian civil war between Islamist forces and the army, following a coup to prevent a moderate Islamist election victory in 1991, the French state increasingly problematised young people of Algerian or North African descent. Expressions of religiosity were seen to be both a refusal to integrate and a potential security risk. Special education and policing zones were established in the banlieux and cites. Where once the residents who had been ghettoised in them were referred to as Maghrebi, they increasingly became categorised instead or also as Muslim. The first legal step against Islamic dress was the Bayrou education reform in 1994.
Throughout the decade this anti-Muslim prejudice became lacquered on to the extant anti-immigrant racism directed against, for example, people from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the sub-continent in Britain, North African Arabs in France, Turks and Kurds in Germany.
The period of the “End of History” following the fall of the Berlin Wall lasted about 18 months. Soon there was direct Western military re-engagement in the Middle East and shortly after, in 1993, Samuel Huntingdon wrote his “Clash of Civilisations?” essay predicting international confrontations between “cultural” blocs, where the culture was so fixed and constitutive of the Other it was as immutable as “race”.
The new Islamophobia had connotations with the political anti-Semitism of the end of the 19th into the first half of the 20th century. Like it, anti-Muslim racism amalgamated anti-immigrant sentiment, reflecting labour market segmentation and competition, and the idea of an existential threat to the nation or European civilisation from without — so that the Muslim within was both someone who was an economic threat and also a fifth column, corrupting “our values”, refusing to integrate and incubating a violent threat.
- Anti-immigrant policy
The deepening integration of the European Union also meant sharpening public and policy hostility to non-European immigration. As the Schengen accord and other treaties brought down barriers between EU states, so higher and higher rose the barbed wire around this thing called “Europe”. National and European-wide measures against asylum seekers and refugees came thick and fast. Black and brown bodies washed up on the tourist beaches of the Canary Islands or Andalusia, on the islands of the Aegean or the west bank of the Evros river separating Greece from Turkey — West from East.
- Persistence of nationalism and race
Far from dissolving national antagonisms with an ever deepening, expanding Europe to the melody of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, the EU fixed the basis for those antagonisms, while at best suppressing them during the good years of expansion. The founding of what became the EU had, in the words of the British economic historian Alan Milward, “rescued” the European nation-state, which was materially and politically in ruins at the end of WWII.
The deepening of the EU — leading up to the creation of the single currency — meant a pooling of sovereignty but through a differential process benefitting the “core”, stronger north European economies at the expense of the “periphery” in southern and later eastern Europe. Not a new supranational state, but a club of competing interests. Not a single European identity, but at best a hyphenated one in which national prejudices were not simply hangovers from the past but were reconfigured in the novel EU arrangement — which also could be the foil for “sovereigntist” movements claiming that all the problems of the neoliberal period and the crisis that followed were down to the EU bureaucracy.
With the first whiff of today’s serious crisis, we saw not simply anti-establishment populist forces, but the establishment itself leap to ethnicised or racialised pseudo-explanations. Greeks, with the longest working hours in Europe, were held to be lazy, Balkan swindlers. The front page of Austria’s best selling tabloid two years ago screamed “Griechen Raus!” not “Griechenland raus”. That is, Greeks (people spread throughout Europe) not Greece (the political entity) out of the EU. Anyone with an ear for German and an eye to history knows that that headline is one syllable away from a slogan common in Germany and Austria in the 1920s and 1930s — Juden raus — Jews out. Around the same time the prime minister of Finland castigated the Catholic majority countries of the southern European fringe and Ireland, saying, “We are Protestant. And we know how to pay our debts.” A remarkable rehabilitation of the language of the religious wars in Europe centuries before.
Increased internal migration within the EU has come at the same time as deregulation of labour markets and an assault on the welfare state — all amplified since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. So east European workers could be readily set up as the cause of economic hardship as we see in Britain now with the crescendo of hostility to Bulgarian and Rumanian migrants 10 months before the cap on their freedom of movement is due to be lifted.
- The decline of the political centre
For 30 years we have seen a decline of the political support for the parties of the centre-left and centre-right. I’m making a big generalisation. There are, of course, ups and downs and there is not a single story that is the same in each European country. But at the risk of overgeneralisation, we have had a generation of both declining voter turnout and declining share for the centre of those who do vote. The remarkable Italian election earlier this month is a very sharp expression of this trend, which began before the centre became even more widely reviled for imposing the austerity.
Furthermore, there has been a neoliberalisation of politics as well as of the economy. Declining and ageing party memberships. Triangulation around shared neoliberal nostrums. Politics as technique — borrowing from the New Democrats under Clinton — with ferocious battles to win a small swing vote, not to a big ideological alternative, but to a different version of broadly the same political philosophy.
Additionally, the flight from class on the centre-left led to projections of a different “community” as the glue that binds people together against the extremes of the free market. In Britain the push for a “new Britishness” was underway under Blair and Brown. In the name of being post-racial, it actually renewed the distinction between “proper Britishness” and those who happened to live here, even be born here. Thilo Sarrazin in Germany went further. More recently we have the centre-right’s assault on “multiculturalism”: Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy all in the space of a couple of months two years ago.
The post-war centre-right largely contained the more racist, more right-wing, more authoritarian strand of opinion within its parties. That has been breaking down for over two decades. Previous advances by fascist or radical Right forces peaked and fell back in the late 1970s and early 1990s. But in each case the residue has been greater than the raw material at their disposal before the surge.
For all the reasons given above — all amplified dramatically by the crisis — the threat of the far Right is not going to go away.
4) The fascist and far Right is an actor in its own right. It is not simply the skewed expression of other forces, and it is in turn shaping mainstream politics. There is direct scapegoating by the governments imposing austerity, which legitimises the far Right. And there is also the drive by the centre-right (at best weakly opposed by the centre-left and all too often shared by leading figures) to seek to recover political support lost through austerity by embracing hardened positions to their Right. So in Greece, 85 Tory MPs have tabled a bill restricting serving in the army to “ethnic Greeks”; i.e. people who have at least one “blood Greek” parent. The far Right and nationalist Right support the bill in the parliament. It is a shocking example of the mainstreaming of ideas of blood nationalism that were discredited following the experience of the 1930s.
In Britain, the forces of the fascist Right are in crisis — the BNP and the EDL. This is in no small part due to the systematic mobilisations around the country, such as in Cambridge two weekends ago, that have pressured the political space they have tried to construct. But they have not gone away. Further, the factors that can allow for a sudden eruption have if anything got more extreme.
The Eastleigh by-election, in which UKIP got 28 percent, shows the deep strategic challenge we face. UKIP is not fascist. But it has radicalised an anti-immigrant, essentially racist, message. Most of its support is from Tory voters. It is seeking to organise the hard Right of the Tory base. It matters very much not just the size of that base, but where it is organised. When organised by national populists to the Right of the Tory party it can have a particularly dangerous effect in both driving mainstream politics to the Right (and that will happen very sharply over immigration in the coming months) and also acting as a precursor for more extreme developments.
The Laos party in Greece — somewhere between UKIP and the BNP — broke through, held office, collapsed out of its role in implementing the austerity memorandum and gave way to the fascists proper of Golden Dawn.
In the Rotherham by-election in November, UKIP went from fifth to second with 22 percent of the vote. The BNP did not simply disappear. It had a presence in the town and went from fourth to third, holding 8 percent of the vote. So, far from UKIP representing an iron barrier to the growth of the fascist Right, it is a permeable membrane. Whether it acts as a recruiting sergeant for a reconfigured fascist Right in Britain is an open question. A part of the answer — one part but a vital one — is what we do.
5) Central to the strategy of UAF has been building a broad movement that is carefully focused on the fascist threat posed by the BNP and the racist street gangs of the EDL. That strategy, in my view, remains critical, especially if the far Right is able to regroup and represent itself.
But the other part of it has been to act in a way that creates a wider anti-racist climate, positive about multiculturalism and confronting the idea that immigration and Muslims are a problem. I believe we have to discuss how we emphasise that particular aspect of what we are doing.
This was done in the 1970s and 1990s. In both cases broad and militant mass movements were directed against the National Front and then the BNP. But the flavour of those mass movements, the culture that surrounded them was more generally anti-racist.
In pulling together large numbers of Black, White and Asian people against fascists and racist violence a new reference point was created for the often more difficult battle of ideas against racism and xenophobia more broadly. This is what happened last weekend in Cambridge. When the main unions in Cambridge along with the city’s three mosques and many others joined the multiracial mobilisation against the EDL the result is not just that the EDL were humiliated, it was that 1000 people on the antifascist mobilisation had a new reference point. “Immigrants” were not people “over there”, but people that you were marching with. And the mobilisation had an impact on the city as whole.
We need to explore how in various ways we build that impact. One thing that UAF supporters are particularly well placed to do is to ensure that an anti-racist, anti-xenophobic message is woven into the various campaigns and protests against austerity — which are set to increase and diversify in April when already announced measures hit very hard.
There is a differential impact of these measures — though taken as whole they hit the vast bulk of society and the most vulnerable especially. One measure hits people who have an empty room. Others hit those who, like many immigrant of ethnic minority families, are severely overcrowded. We need to consider how the protests that take place bring the issues together — and with them the people — so that we close down the space for racist or anti-migrant explanations for suffering.
This strategic discussion has already begun in UAF over the last few weeks. Additionally, we have already begun to deepen the connections with the anti-fascist and anti-racist movements in Europe. We welcome the call for a gathering of the movements in Athens in October. The 19 January demonstrations provided a glimpse of what serious national mobilisations internationally coordinated could achieve.
So we want to develop that. We want to develop UAF in every area. And we want to deepen this discussion about how we build on the things we have got right, and address the new challenges that are going to grow in the coming 12 months.