By Helena Dearnell
Dateline: July 13, 2018
The current zeitgeist in the United States seems to be characterized by the idea that democracy is in peril around the world. The Washington Post’s new slogan is “Democracy dies in darkness” and the media has panels talking about how fascism in Europe and the US is rising, while democracy loses ground. Madelaine Albright recently published a book called Fascism: A Warning. Part of the basis for this worry is the increase in nationalistic politicians elected in Western countries and the rise in support for right-wing parties. Reducing the problem of a loss of democracy in Europe to a rise in fascism, without understanding the historical and economic causes for this tendency, is misleading and non-productive. Most of the heightened nationalism in the West correlates with a working-class rejection of an increased influx of refugees combined with bad economic performance. Since the creation of the European Union, the economic prospects of many European countries have deteriorated thanks to neoliberal policies of privatization and the undermining of social programs and worker’s rights. It is easy to see that refugee increases created by wars and climate change are adding to the financial pressures in these countries, creating a desire for change that is very often answered by right wing anti-immigrant parties. This tendency is being misinterpreted as a loss of democracy in Europe.
Neoliberalism and the European Union
In order to understand the economic vulnerability of many countries in Europe, it is useful to revise some facts about the European Union. Even though it is touted as a win-win situation for all countries involved, in reality the EU has many malfunctions in its economic and democratic makeup. The European Union is more than a simple trade agreement. The unification of Europe helped to spread neoliberal policies of austerity, privatization and trimming of the welfare state, while the Euro created the possibility for financial and economic abuses. The power in Europe is mostly wielded by what is called the Troika: the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF. These institutions dictate the economic policies for all the countries and austerity is used as the only tool in their economic tool-box to deal with whatever economic woes a country has. This central strategy approach to very different countries has lead to big economic imbalances that are heightened by the fact that though there is a common currency, the interest rates of the different countries can vary. With the Euro, bond speculators had the assurance of no currency fluctuation of their investments in poorer European countries, while benefitting from their higher interest rates. This created an initial boom in the economies of these countries, which quickly deceived since the speculators are fickle and don’t think for the long term. Once a country showed slight signs of weakness, it was attacked by speculators and their actions worsened the crisis turning the country insolvent. The European Union has no stipulations about the management of an economic crisis, so the standard solution proposed by the Troika is austerity, which rewards the bondholders while sacrificing the people and the economy of the country.
Greece is a good example of the power of the Troika and the implied lack of democracy inherent in the European Union. In 2015 the leftist party SYRIZA was elected. There was also a referendum in which the Greeks voted overwhelmingly against the Troika’s prescriptions for more austerity. Yannis Varoufakis, the Finance minister at the time, went to Germany to negotiate the austerity terms in accordance with the democratic wish of the people. Once there, the Troika refused any negotiation arguing that their directives superseded the democratic results of an election or a referendum in a member country. When Varoufakis asked his German counterpart if he would sign an agreement with similar austerity terms, he replied he would refuse, because it was detrimental to the people. Varoufakis didn’t sign the agreement and the Troika forced SYRIZA to dismiss him from the government. After his resignation, the Troika made SYRIZA comply with their directives and the once leftist party became ineffectual, another casualty to the economic Troika.
The example of Greece shows that true democracy is more in peril from the Troika than from fascism. Its mandate precludes the correct functioning of democratic institutions in a country, since any true leftist party is discouraged. The people, tired of neoliberal policies, don’t have a leftist party to turn to, so they opt for any change from the neo-liberal status quo, usually the anti-immigrant right-wing. It is easy to see that this flight to the right-wing parties is heightened by an increasing influx of refugees. The Troika doesn’t care if a leader has a nationalistic bent, as long as his government follows the economic strategies prescribed by them. The EU pays lip service to their anti-nationalistic rightwing stance, but in reality, they care more about imposing their economic mandate on other countries. The fast attribution of fascism as the culprit for the loss of democracy in Europe, confuses and makes a solution very difficult.
The elected prime minister of Hungary, anti-immigration Viktor Orban illustrates well the fears of a rising fascism. The first thing to notice is that Orban was elected by the Hungarian people and Hungary has democratic institutions that are still functioning. His anti-immigrant and anti-refugee stance is regrettable but it is a symptom of a more complicated problem that includes history and economics. The feelings of the people in Hungary are being felt in all of Europe, even in Germany. The influx of refugees is causing worsening economic problems for the most vulnerable countries, creating divisions, just like a defeated and economically punished Germany fell into the trap of nationalism and xenophobia in the 20th century.
The increase of refugees in Europe has two main causes: wars and climate change.
People in Europe don’t want refugees but they forget that destructive wars in the Middle East, led by the United States and its allies in Europe, are causing a steep rise in refugees. The Iraq war, based on falsehoods, ushered in wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The destabilization of a whole area, alleging fake humanitarian issues that mask the real aims of fossil fuel resource control, and the prevalence of the Petrodollar, has caused an immense humanitarian crisis. Many of the refugees have gone to nearby countries, but with the whole area in chaos, the best place to go is evidently powerful and geographically close Europe.
The destruction of a well-functioning country like Libya created even greater problems for the refugee crisis. Libya was giving economic aid to many countries in Africa and wanted to create an African gold-backed currency that would increase economic stability in the region. Libya was also helping African refugees passing through, by offering study and work options that will dissuade them from continuing to Europe. Unfortunately, Libya was destroyed and became a non-functioning country with a serious slavery problem, completely unable to stop the refugee flow. It is strange that the same countries that agreed with NATO to start a war in Libya, are now complaining about the increased influx of refugees, caused in part by that same war. Western countries have to understand that their eternal quest for natural resources and supremacy through war, has very unpleasant consequences in the real world.
The other big cause for refugees is climate change. Even though most people are not aware, about 50 years ago we entered a new epoch called the Anthropocene. This means that 200 years of industrialization based on fossil fuels have managed to drastically affect all of the Earth’s systems, imperiling our own survival. We have disrupted the carbon and nitrogen cycle, causing the melting of the Arctic and the permafrost under it, releasing methane and mercury from underneath. This increases the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere dramatically and further destabilizes the climate, wreaking havoc with atmospheric and ocean currents. The results of these disturbances are causing unprecedented droughts, rain, and sea rise that are affecting many already economically vulnerable countries. The less we act to solve climate change the more greenhouse gases will spew into the air and the more weather disturbances there will be around the world. This inevitably means an exponential increase in desperate refugees.
How are the industrialized and most powerful countries of the West going to deal with this very real problem of war and climate change refugees? For now, the United Nations has not defined a category for climate refugee and continues with the 20th-century definition based on political or religious persecution. The pressures of increased refugees are causing a push towards nationalism and xenophobia, that is mistakenly interpreted as a threat to democracy. If we want to preserve democratic values around the world, instead of easily crying out fascism as the culprit, we have to pinpoint the problem correctly and find ways to truly deal with the refugee crisis.
In order to find solutions, we have to face the reality of the Anthropocene and understand that our disturbances of Earth are serious and will cause increasing limitations on our current way of life. Unless we unite to deal with the problems we will be imperiling not only our democracy, but our own quality of life and survival. An economic system based on consumerism, that requires wars to secure finite resources and ignores its effects on the planet and the most vulnerable in the world, isn’t sustainable. War is not only destructive, it carries a huge carbon footprint, so it compounds the refugee problem exponentially. The expansion of neoliberalism to Europe and the rest of the world is causing an increase in economic insecurity coupled with a push towards more consumerism, which is worsening the climate problem. The only way to truly address this is to develop a new economic system that considers an economy embedded in a social and ecological context. If we only see profit as the basis of an economic transaction, we forget about its effects on people and the environment, and we are missing most of the equation. This new economic system will link the repercussions of any activity to its impact on equality and the environment. A momentous change like this one requires a lot of effort, but mostly it requires a consensus based on an awareness of the problem. Unfortunately, the mainstream opinion tends to conform to what suits the Establishment of laissez-faire capitalism, unending wars and tepid assessment of the perils of climate change. From an evolutionary point of view, a species has to correctly judge threats in order to survive, and being well informed is the basis for a correct evaluation. The change required won’t even lift off the ground unless there is enough global awareness of the problems, and we demand a solution from politicians and the Global Establishment. Are we willing to give up the comfort of the status quo for a chance to fix our problems? Let’s hope that just as we have been intelligent enough to develop the technology that allowed us to arrive where we are, we will also have the intelligence to correctly assess the real threats to our species and act to correct them. If not, words like democracy and fascism will just be that, words, ones that will be dwarfed by the real crisis we are facing.
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Helena Dearnell spent her early life in Colombia and studied Civil Engineering at Los Andes University. She then decided to explore the world and went to live in Paris, where she studied painting. She has lived in New York and Paris at different times in her life and says this has helped her to understand the European and the American perspectives. She finds this very useful for critical thinking and questioning the status quo.