A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of neo-fascism. From Denmark to Austria, and from Switzerland to Belgium, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment are rapidly on the rise. With xenophobic parties making spectacular gains in recent elections in Sweden and the Netherlands, traditionally more centrist governments in Germany and France can be seen taking a desperate dash to the right. In the process, European democracy is being thrown into its deepest crisis since the rise of fascism in the 1930s. The very freedom that triumphed in World War II is today at stake.
In a move hauntingly reminiscent of Hindenburg’s fateful 1933 decision, Christian Democrats and free-market Liberals in the Netherlands earlier this month decided to form a minority government dependent on backbench support from Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party. Over the past couple of years, Wilders has successfully profiled himself as the most outspoken critic of Islam on the continent. Among his favorite slogans are the call for a complete halt on immigration from Islamic countries, the repatriation of non-working immigrants, the banning of the Quran and a tax on headscarves.
In Sweden, a right-wing party with neo-Nazi roots for the first time acceded into parliament following last month’s elections. Similarly, the city of Vienna – once a stronghold of socialist, communist and anarchist activists – saw a spectacular victory for a right-wing candidate who campaigned with a slogan calling for “more courage for our Vienna blood”. The far-right nationalists of the New Flemish Alliance recently became the largest party in Belgian parliament.
Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy remains busy hunting the gypsies in France. According to French immigration minister Eric Besson, “there is no question of France suspending returns to countries of origin,” so unabashed deportations are shamelessly continued. In case anyone had missed it, Angela Merkel made sure to hit the nail into the coffin of freedom and respect, declaring that efforts to build a multicultural society in Germany have “utterly failed”.
Even more worrisome than the political rhetoric are the social dynamics on the ground. A survey of the University of Leipzig has found that over half of the German population feels that “Arabs aren’t pleasant people,” while 58 percent believes the practice of Islam should be “considerably restricted.” Research by the Friedrich Elbert Foundation has found that a third of Germans wants to see all foreigners repatriated, while 10 percent would like to see a “Führer” take charge of the country.
The surge in anti-Islamic sentiment is reflecting itself in increasing violence against Muslims and other ethnic minorities. According to researchers at the University of Exeter, unreported violence against Muslims is on the rise in London. Earlier this month, a French woman was fined for violently tearing a niqab off the face of a tourist from the United Arab Emirates. In Sweden, a series of 17 shootings on people of ethnic-minority backgrounds culminated last week in the shooting of two immigrant women.
It is clear by now that none of these incidents are isolated. They are part of a broader, systemic backlash to ongoing political and economic dynamics. In this respect, it is important to see the sudden rise of xenophobia and anti-Islamism against the backlight of persistent economic woes. Existential anxieties caused by financial distress, along with skyrocketing unemployment and rapid social change, appear to be triggering a primitive need for security and belonging. With centrist parties deeply implicated in the crisis, the governing elite has lost all its credibility.
In the political vacuum generated by this Habermasian legitimation crisis, the neo-fascist movement finds fertile ground for the cultivation of what Manuel Castells has called the “culture of anger”. The dynamic is hauntingly similar to that of the 1930s. In both cases, a period of rampant laissez faire zealotry – leading to the rapid economic expansion of the roaring twenties and the roaring nineties – led to vast increases in inequalities in society, as well as rampant social change and mounting existential insecurities.
As a result, the 1920s saw the rise of Mussolini and Hitler and the 1990s saw the rise of Haider, Fortuyn and Le Pen. In both cases, the inevitable occurred: the great economic boom turned to bust, and the seeds of hatred that had been planted during the expansion blossomed into the black flowers of despotism during the crisis. In both cases, ‘footloose’ ethnic minorities took the face of liberal politicians and greedy bankers; first Jews, and then Muslims, became the very embodiment of the local displacements wrecked by an out-of-touch cosmopolitan elite.
The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, famous for his study on the psychology of fascism, realized that in times of rapidly expanding liberalism, for the masses of the population freedom goes from being a dream to becoming a nightmare. The displacement and anxiety caused by capitalist crisis inevitably lead to an attempted escape from freedom. As the masses embrace authoritarianism and violence, they help create the semblance of security and belonging. Safety and identity are restored, but freedom is sacrificed in the process.
No matter how much Wilders and his henchmen hammer on their defense of ‘freedom’, they will do more than anyone else since Hitler and Mussolini to undermine it. The task is up to us to stop them in their wicked tracks. As Walter Benjamin famously stated, “every fascism is an index of a failed revolution.” The European Left should mobilize to show that security and identity can be reclaimed without recourse to hatred and violence – the freedom of others need not be sacrificed for the illusion of a separate selfhood.
Our movement starts this Saturday in Amsterdam as we mobilize to restore freedom, equality and respect in the face of the English Defense League’s march to keep fear alive. Come and join the resistance!
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