The Left had much to celebrate over the long weekend: not only was the Conservative Party routed in Britain’s local elections, the triumph of Hollande over Sarkozy in France and the success of socialist and social democratic parties in Greece and Schleswig Holstein suggest that the political tide is turning red. Austerity has been discredited; Hollande has promised to provide hope to all of Europe. Perhaps this political change may lead to genuine change. It is a precious moment, one in which optimism is in the ascendant.
Or is it? I have my doubts; hitherto, where the Left has been in charge, as in Spain, it was booted. Where the right has been in charge, it too has been kicked out, or in the case of the Netherlands, it collapsed in on itself. Hollande’s anti-austerity policies certainly have their attractions, but at the same time, Sarkozy’s inability to do much was probably the main reason he was dispatched. If looked at from this perspective, what is going on looks more like a reaction rather than a genuine shift. The economy throughout Europe is in terrible shape. Unemployment is rife, the politicians seem unable to prescribe any medicine other than astringents, and these cures don’t appear to be working. If one doctor is unable to cure a disease, then it’s natural to turn to another in the hopes that a different course of treatment might achieve something. This is the logic that lay behind the most politically dangerous in period in world history, the 1930’s. In 1928, the Nazi party received less than 3% of the vote. Yet less than 5 years later, the Nazis were in power: there were twists and turns in this journey, but the main motif was that the Social Democrats lacked the ability and the will to sort Germany’s problems. Hitler was a quack, his diagnosis of what ailed Germany was racist nonsense, but people pushed to the edge were more willing to fall off it than to remain where they were. At least dictatorship shielded the German people from having to contemplate messy and complicated truths, let alone deal with them.
We would like to think we’ve learned lessons from history. However, Greece is a case study in how little we remember. Greece shouldn’t be at all susceptible to the charms of any neo-Nazi group: their country was first attacked by the Fascist Italians in October 1940 and subsequently invaded by the Germans in April 1941. It was then occupied by Italy, Germany and Bulgaria. Over 300,000 people in Athens alone starved due to the Axis occupation. Yet, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn group, whose flags and symbols have an eerie Third Reich feel to them, scored over 7% of the vote in the Greek election and now have 21 MPs. Disturbingly, the contempt that this group has for a free press has already been on display; after the election, their skinhead acolytes demanded that journalists stand at attention for their party leaders prior to a press conference.
Furthermore, Golden Dawn have already talked about putting immigrants into work camps as well as placing landmines on the Turkish border. Their programme is extreme. From the outside, it appears to be mad. However, they learned much from their German predecessors: in a seemingly fatal situation, they provide hope, welfare and defiance. The rich inheritance of Greek history has fallen away, at least for some. Similar impulses lay behind the third place showing for Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential election: give us something, anything, just no more of what is now. Bring back our jobs, our homes and our pride, the electorate say: the pragmatic politicians are reluctant to state with certainty that they can, the unrealistic madmen promise the heavens above. Human beings are more than capable of self-delusion and many succumb. But nevertheless, the hard realities of economic crisis remain, and tearing them asunder means either default or violence. Since the financiers will not countenance the former, the latter may be the result.
I cannot help but recall William Butler Yeats’ prescient words in his poem, “The Second Coming” –
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats was writing just after the end of the First World War, a conflict which was referred to as “The Great War” and “The War to End all Wars”. This summation was premature; nevertheless, we thought we had learned something from the horror and bloodshed, which left so many empty chairs at family tables and new graves filled with the bones of the fallen young. Yet a mere 20 years after Yeats set his pen to paper, an even more horrific conflict took place. Human history seems to be forever slouching towards Bethlehem: the rough beasts, thanks to man’s capacity for invention, are ever more horrific on delivery. Crisis is the means of conception; we seem unable to provide a “morning after pill”. Reason has difficulty in triumphing over emotion; we have problems discerning what really ails us and curing the illness.
Something has to give. In the case of Greece, what needs to be done is relatively simple: we need to acknowledge that there is no freedom without the truth, and the truth is Greece needs get out of the Euro, devalue and default. Yes, this won’t be pleasant, but at least this programme provides a direction, rather than continuance in a painful stasis. In the case of France, again, the truth must again be told: if austerity goes too far, too fast, the economy will be crushed and bond traders won’t get paid any returns whatsoever. The bond traders too must realise that any investment involves risk, and that there is no way to guarantee that every cent they put in will be repaid in full. Hence, it’s time for the markets to be told firmly to back off and have policies implemented to that end. In the case of the Euro, it’s necessary to provide a means of escape as well as a mechanism to join. This is all straightforward. However, paranoia about what may happen and the current “pragmatism” about markets and creditors means that this is unlikely to occur: things will continue until they cannot. We are seeing the point of “cannot” in Greece; yet only more pressure is being applied. The Germans, a heavily indebted nation after World War I, of all people, should know where this leads: but they too forget, and don’t want to recognise that what was once unleashed in themselves could be set loose in others.
My understanding is that while Greece still reels from instability, at least the French are basking in their moment of defiance. Crowds apparently poured out onto the steets of Paris after Hollande’s triumph and celebrated. Maybe their optimism is justified; maybe when Hollande meets with Merkel, he will convince her that it is time to change course. Perhaps Greece will be allowed to exit the Euro and thus escape immediate danger, via structured and carefully crafted means. Maybe for once, we will consult the dusty pages of history and heed the wisdom that lay therein. The slouch towards Bethlehem is a choice, not pre-ordained: the rough beasts conceived out of human greed and mendacity need not be born.