History repeats itself — the rise of a new fascism
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Originated by George Santayana and made famous by Churchill. George Bernard Shaw added, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”. Right now we seem to have both failed to learn our lessons and as such are doomed to repeat them. Yet, I can not give in to cynicism. There are still plenty of us who are all too aware of the lessons of history and are desperate not to repeat them.
What we are witnessing, both in the USA,and also across western countries, would feel familiar to early twentieth century Europe. It is not precisely the same, and it never is, but the trends are there. The origins of fascism lie in the first world war. Millions were mobilised to fight in the trenches and the differences between combatant and civilian evaporated. It seemed to spell the end of liberal democracy.
The beginning of this century has seen a different war, the rise of terrorism. Although miniscule by comparison in its death toll, it nonetheless occupies and preoccupies the public consciousness. Religious fanaticism demonstrates that mass war is not needed; The fear that that war is on your doorstep is enough. The strike at the twin towers was such a symbolic strike that we are still reeling globally from its effects. It is the archduke Ferdinand assassination of our century. It is in the reaction to that perceived threat, that lie the seeds to our new fascism.
The economics of fascism
Yet, there is another important global process that again replicates events of the early twentieth century. Nobel prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, calls the 1990s, the roaring 90s, after its economic similarities to the 1920s. There was apparent wealth at both times, although in reality it was a bubble. In the 90s we imagined riches driven by soaring property prices and stock prices. In the 20s the delayed spending from the Great War stimulated prosperity. In the 30s the economy went into decline because agriculture that had employed so many, no longer needed the labour. Innovation and efficiency meant an over production of food, driving down prices and causing a crisis. In the noughties, it is the rapid decline of manufacturing that has had the same effect. The causes are many, but globalisation and mechanisation are major drivers.
Globalisation means workers in the USA or the UK are competing directly with those from China or Bangladesh. The economies are so different, that wage parity is utterly impossible. You can not have a workforce that consistently earns beneath its means, unable to house itself or afford healthcare. You merely create misery and another economic time bomb.
The scourge of unregulated banks
The solution offered to us by the elite is that we feed the banks more money—only their financial might can rescue our economies. This is despite the fact that it is the unregulated activities of the banks that caused the financial bubble in the first place. Subprime mortgage securities were the epitome of this crazy system. Bankers were making millions by packaging mortgages in securities and trading them, with the help of ratings agencies utterly unfit for purpose. That bubble burst in 2008 and still we don’t know when real recovery may come. Despite the millions that lost jobs and homes, only one banker was sent to prison. The wealthiest class are insulated from the dangers of their gambling. We’ve sent them into a casino with all our assets, and they can never lose a penny of their own money. How did that happen?
We have been sold the notion that these people need our money, our tax money, to keep gambling — because only if they win do we stand a chance of increasing our wealth — the “trickle-down” economy. Well, its quite obvious it’s an illusion peddled by a powerful elite, who are loath to relinquish their grip on global wealth. The wealth inequality tells its own story. That divide between the top 1% and bottom 50% hit its peak in the 1920s just before the depression and the crash. That divide is now back up to those levels, whilst the political voices that would address that problem are relentlessly attacked in a press owned by billionaires.
Capitalism in decay
So what does this mean for our politics? It means we have a working class, or poorest strata, that have suffered greatly from loss of work, declining pay, education and healthcare. Lenin described fascism as “Capitalism in decay”. And he has a point. We have more and more cut back the banking regulation and turned them into casinos for the wealthiest, backed up by promises from our governments that mean they can’t lose. We have created an environment for the top 1% that insulates and protects them, with no checks or balances as to the wisdom of their activities.
Given this backdrop we can examine the political dialogue on both sides of the atlantic and start to identify the rhetoric that signifies the decay of democracy. In the UK there are increased appeals to “the people”. We talk a lot about “the will of the people” in post referendum Britain, in such a way as to invalidate all other mechanisms of democracy. The right insinuates that corrupt institutions will attempt to thwart that will. This could be parliament itself, by wanting to vote on the deal that takes us from Europe, or it’s the judiciary for daring to decide that legally parliament has a right to do this. Notable newspapers have joined in this attack on the pillars of our democracy, whilst maintaining the pretence it is a defence of “the will of the people”. These papers are owned by billionaires, unsurprisingly.
In the USA, Trump has successfully devalued the whole system of American democracy. He has consistently maintained his opponent to be incredibly corrupt and the system to be corrupt and rigged. He gently incites his followers to subvert the system, whether using oblique references to shooting the opposition, or voting twice, or just not accepting a corrupt verdict that doesn’t suit him. These are the same devices used in 1920s Italy or 1930s germany. Undermine the democratic system to the extent that you can then assume a mandate to destroy that system.
The beginning of the struggle
America votes today. I suspect that even if Trump loses we are still at the beginning of the problem, not its end. In the UK we are grappling with a seismic shift away from Europe, based upon playing up the existential threat of immigrants, and finding scapegoats for the poor, dispossessed, class to blame. This, rather than blaming the fallacy of the “trickle-down” economy that we have been sold for years. The working poor and the unemployed are so because of that system, and desperate lack of investment, not because Polish immigrants are doing a lot of the building jobs.
We have a UK today that has argued bitterly over whether homeless refugee children should be admitted to the country. This a country that organised the Kindertransport in the 1930s; a country that gives incredibly generously to charities and is genuinely caring. Immigration has been made such an inflated and disproportionate threat for the use of the right, that “the people” are no longer seeing the contradiction in denying these children. I do not need to rehearse the endless list of demonised minorities in the USA by Trump, we know them all. Fascism uses fear as a lever, and fear is the root of violence.
Looking beyond scapegoats, defending democracy, practicing compassion
On both sides of the Atlantic we have long had governments in hock to Wall Street or the City. Our fiscal policies have emanated from the banks, not from our elected representatives. We have pursued the myth that generating extraordinary wealth at the top means wealth for us all, and now we are paying the price. That wealthy class, and those who would be part of it, are now looking for the scapegoats to blame for the misery of the people. When scapegoats are found, they are then able to claim to represent “the will of the people” and to begin to dismantle the pillars of our democracies — elected representatives, an independent judiciary, a free press, freedom of expression. We must now reform in the right direction or risk fascism taking hold of our countries.
Capitalism is in decay, the richest are getting richer. The extremely wealthy are plundering workers’ pensions, the banks suffer no consequence for failure, and we pay for all of it. Our most vulnerable pay the biggest price. Whether gun crime in the USA amongst a youth with no prospects, or those in the UK suffering benefits sanctions by a government that would rather pretend ‘welfare scroungers’ are to blame for our troubles than the financial elite. More scapegoats! It is a well trodden path. History is all too clear, Hitler called out every minority for persecution in the name of “the people”. It is now the absolute duty of every enlightened individual in the democratic world to expose the lies and to defend liberty and practice compassion.
Another lesson from history is that violence is a poor remedy for lack of compassion from the rising fascists. Such a victory as WW2 cost millions of lives, and ruined many millions more. It is not a route we would choose. We have an alternative, which is to practice the compassion we would wish for from these fascists. We must continue to call out the racists, the misogynists, the anti-semites, the homophobes, the islamophobes, call out the petty prejudices that are a substitute for a true identification of our problems.
Climate change the ultimate existential threat
We also do face a genuine existential threat now that did not exist in the 1930s. We face a climate crisis that could threaten our very existence. In a historical first, we have opportunity to see how fascism responds to that kind of threat and now we know. They either dismiss it entirely, in the case of Trump or Farage, or they pay it lip service and do nothing. Both are extremely dangerous positions. Climate is an inconvenience for fascists as it is unifying rather than divisive. It calls for co-operation rather than separation and runs counter to their every political need. We do not have the luxury of time. We can not afford fascism, not only for the endless suffering it causes, but because we need to engage with our common threat. This is a truly momentous moment in history.
When the ballots come in tomorrow, lets hope it does not repeat the moment on november the 1st, 1920 in Bologna. The social-democratic councilmen won their election and emerged from city hall to present their new mayor. Democracy had delivered moderate voices. They were met with gunfire from the defeated fascists, killing ten and injuring over a hundred. The fascists had undone the mechanism of democracy and used violence in the name of the “people”. Do not let your name be abused. Whatever the outcome for America tomorrow, whatever the outcome for the United Kingdom in the years ahead, we have a job to do. There are liberties and institutions of democracy that must be defended with the same compassion and urgency to do good for our fellow man (and planet) with which they were created. We must all educate ourselves and strive for the best possible tomorrow.
Making a difference
We owe it to ourselves and all inhabitants of this planet, both now and future generations to engage with this. If fascism encourages us to recognise divisions with our fellow men and women, then we must dissolve those barriers. Spend time with cultures that you are unfamiliar with. Arrange a visit to a mosque or a synagogue, a temple or a church. Fascism tells you they will be hate filled and bent on your misery, but experience will show you humans like you with the same fears and hopes, the same desire for peace and community.
Be active in your circles, engage in the discussions on Facebook or Twitter. Be aware of your own fears and tackle them head on. Be aware of what you read and who is writing it, what you watch and who is making it. Our politics is the sum of how we live our lives, if we are active, we do not have time to fear. If we do not fear, then there is no nourishment for fascism. There is no them and us, only us. Challenge the illusions, show compassion and you can change the world.
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