Populist victories throughout Europe

What does it mean that populist governments are being elected in Europe? Is there a danger that fascism is on the rise?

Throughout Europe more and more voters are expressing their rejection of traditional bourgeois parties and turning to maverick parties that offer a quick fix to Europe’s economic problems, much as desperate patients whose doctors cannot cure them often turn to purveyors of snake oil and suchlike useless ‘cures’.

What is happening in Europe, as indeed in most other parts of the capitalist world, is that capitalism is still reeling from a crisis of overproduction from which it has by no means yet recovered — notwithstanding regular proclamations to the contrary in the bourgeois financial media, which celebrate the ‘recovery’ while admitting that it is a ‘jobless’ one. The so-called recovery has not produced much in the way of new jobs, and those it has produced are overwhelmingly more lowly-paid and insecure than might have been expected in the past.

If the hyper-wealthy are happy that their wealth is increasing again, the proletariat is certainly not at all happy about its own situation – and rightly so. In spite of their lower average purchasing power, one way or another workers are still paying for the bank bailouts with cutbacks in public services needed to repay interest on the loans the government has taken out in order to stay afloat.

At the same time, with people earning less, government tax income is falling, requiring even greater austerity – especially as there is very little appetite for asking the hyper-rich to fork out a slice of their gigantic wealth, particularly since they are already ‘suffering’ low interest rates.

When interest rates start rising again from their current historic lows, the squeeze on public spending and household incomes will get even worse as government and workers alike are forced to pay more to service their debts.

In Europe, economically less competitive countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland and some ex-Soviet bloc countries, while originally receiving a huge boost from joining the EU and then the euro, found themselves after the onset of the world economic crisis in 2008 drowning in the debt that they incurred to fund spectacular infrastructure upgrades, while their uncompetitive industries simply withered away, leaving a massive wake of unemployment, especially among the young.

As their debts rise in relation to their GDP, so do the interest rates they are charged, and therefore also the amount lost to the government budget for the provision of services and the maintenance of infrastructure, etc.

This is, of course, an egregiously parlous state of affairs and, not unnaturally, the proletarian masses expect the governments they vote into office to do something about it. The traditional parties have had their turns in office and have proved helpless in the face of the challenge, so is it any wonder that voters are looking elsewhere?

The problem is that there simply is no cure for the ills of capitalism within the capitalist system, except to the extent that there is some modest cyclical relief, even within periods of prolonged crisis. The time is well overdue for the capitalist system to be overthrown and replaced with a socialist planned economy.

In the circumstances, it is not only the traditional bourgeois parties but also the ‘populist’ parties that will be quite unable to deliver a cure. Unlike the traditional parties, the populist parties will condemn ‘neoliberalism’ (unbridled capitalism – as if capitalism were capable of being bridled!), promise Keynesian ‘remedies’ as well as the (re)nationalisation of the banks, standing up to creditors and ‘taking control’ of the national economy – but in the end they will prove unable to deliver.

This has been the case, for example, with Syriza in Greece, whose basic achievement has been to contain the anger of the masses while their pockets have been picked clean. Meanwhile, parties like France’s National Front, Italy’s Northern League, etc, happily adopt policies that have been abandoned by ‘respectable’ social-democratic parties.

But, as Anne Applebaum wrote recently in the Financial Times: “Just because nationalisation, protectionism, fiscal irresponsibility or punitive taxation have been tried and have failed before does not mean that someone will not someday try them again, especially if they are branded with a shiny new national flag.” (Europe’s new right sounds like the old left, 27 January 2016)

In actual fact, as the Greek example shows, with the best will in the world the populist parties find it almost impossible to deliver on most of their promises (although they may cause inconvenience to the big bourgeoisie in whatever little they do try to do).

In Italy, the reaction of the financial markets soon whipped the ‘populist’ coalition into line. The recent takeover of the Italian government by a populist coalition provides a very interesting example of the helplessness of such governments in face of the realities of capitalism.

But, to start with, it shows to what extent the differences between the so-called ‘ultra-left’ and ‘ultra-right’ populists are so minimal that coalition between them is perfectly possible! In any event, while the parties to the coalition had been inveighing for years against the evils of the euro, it did not take much to get them to change their tune:

“Economists say that if Italy, the fourth-biggest economy in the European Union, were to exit the euro it would do enormous financial damage to the country and hurt the continent’s economic stability.

“The political uncertainty in Italy — as well the remote possibility of leaving the euro — spooked the markets when the formation of a government by the two parties appeared likely. The combination created some of the scariest economic days for the country since the 2011 financial crisis that planted the seeds for this week’s populist flowering.

“After a leaked draft of the alliance’s government platform included proposals about leaving the eurozone and a proposed finance minister turned out to have helped write a guide to leaving the euro, the global markets dipped precipitously.

“Since then, however, seemingly every Five Star and League leader has disavowed their antagonism to the euro, or rather denied ever harbouring any hostility to it whatsoever.

“On Wednesday night, League officials literally whitewashed their anti-euro history by painting over the blue ‘Basta Euro’, or no more euro, sign on its headquarters in Milan.” (Italy’s populist parties win approval to form government by Jason Horowitz, New York Times, 31 May 2018)

Now the new Italian government is begging for EU approval to spend its way out of crisis, while at the same time wanting to lift sanctions on Russia in order to restore life to Italian industries that had strong connections with Russian markets.

While Europe as a whole has some interest in lifting sanctions against Russia, one cannot imagine that it is going to give the green light to relieving Italy of some of its liabilities in order to facilitate a Keynesian revival – it certainly did not allow Greece any such leeway.

However, there is also the consideration that the economic collapse of Italy – a country that accounts for 15.4 percent of EU GDP and 23.4 percent of the bloc’s public debt – and its exit from the EU would be a disaster for the EU as a whole … so one never knows.

Many of the populist parties are of course selling the ‘anti-immigrant’ snake oil. Italy in particular expects to save billions of euros by refusing to harbour immigrants. Regrettably, the European masses are only too susceptible to believing that immigrants are somehow responsible for the fall in everybody’s standard of living – the perfect scapegoats for the ills of capitalism.

This narrative is spread by all the bourgeois parties, especially the ‘respectable’ traditional bourgeois parties. The ‘populists’ take advantage of the propaganda to offer ‘solutions’ to the crisis along the lines of expelling, or refusing to accept, immigrants – even bona fide refugees.

In actual fact, of course, immigrants tend to strengthen the economies of the recipient countries, bringing all kinds of skills with them, as well as a willingness to work hard – even in Britain it is generally admitted that the NHS, for example, would collapse without the skilled immigrant labour that keeps it afloat. They are able to provide not only nurses and doctors, but also teachers, lawyers, carers, building workers, catering workers, farm workers, etc, etc, often able and willing to do jobs that, because of unsocial hours or their sheer unpleasantness, local workers are unwilling to do.

In fact, immigrants would never constitute a burden were it not for the fact that they are usually prevented from working, even on their own account, by bourgeois governments intent on spreading the ‘blame the immigrant’ message among the masses.

Because of their ubiquitous anti-immigrant policies, various populist parties are dubbed ‘fascist’, or at very least ‘extreme right-wing’, even though they are only taking to their logical conclusion the policies considered reasonable and sensible by the traditional parties.

The condemnation of these anti-immigrant populists is to be explained by the fact that the bourgeoisie is terrified that if they were to secure control of the government they might take actions that adversely affect the interests of monopoly capitalism – even if these actions do little, if anything to benefit the proletarian masses.

It’s not impossible that, failing to get concessions from the EU, a ‘populist’ government could storm out of it, notwithstanding the hardship that would cause to the country, confident of being able to ride out of blame on a wave of nationalist fervour. Even restricting the entry of the much-maligned immigrants – the policy that populist governments are most likely to actually implement – could affect the profitability, and thus the survival, of local businesses, to the detriment not only of their owners, but also of their staff.

Fascism involves holding down the working-class movement by violence and force, eliminating freedom of speech and assembly for those expressing the interests of the proletariat and eliminating traditional trade-union rights. While all bourgeois parties will to a limited extent implement some of these measures, quantity is a long way off turning into quality, and it would be wrong today to call any of the present electoral parties, at least in western Europe, fascist, however vile their behaviour towards immigrants.

There is for the moment no reason to think that when the time comes for the bourgeoisie to feel it needs to resort to force to repress the working-class movement, the ‘populists’ – whether supposedly of the right or of the left – will be any more inclined to abandon the norms of bourgeois democracy than would be the ‘respectable’ traditional parties.

While it is painful to see desperate would-be immigrants fleeing hunger and war being turned away, it must never be forgotten that the ‘rationale’ for doing so is embraced just as much by the traditional parties as by the ‘populists’.

And it should not be forgotten that although anti-immigrant rhetoric does strike a chord among many hard-pressed people, there are probably far more whose heart goes out to those unfortunate enough to be forced to leave their home countries, to face incredible danger and loss of life of themselves and their small children on perilous journeys, and to arrive in countries seeped in hostility towards them.

These decent people among the proletariat, surely the majority, who are only too willing to share with those less fortunate than themselves, should be fully supported in their calls for immigrants to be accepted. In due course, these are the decent people who will form the backbone of the revolutionary movement to overthrow capitalism, for these are the people capable of seeing beyond the narrow limits of their own selfish interests in order to put in place a society capable of providing a decent living for all.