by Sydney Williams
It is not often that I agree with François Hollande, but I do when he warns of the growing popularity of regressive nationalists like France’s National Front Party. Where we differ is that I believe he, with his emphasis on the social welfare state and his tolerance for the intolerance of Muslim extremism, bears some of the responsibility for the counter-cultural rise in nationalism and extremism in France and throughout much of Europe.
Much of the backlash in Europe is anti-Muslim in nature. Other aspects have to do with a reaction to a welfare system that is proving costly and detrimental to economic growth. Yet, it has taken on other, more ominous tones. According to reports from two American conservative news sources, World Net Daily and the Washington Free Beacon Press, there has been a recent rise in anti-Semitism in Europe.
M. Hollande’s warning came after the National Front won a decisive victory in Brignole, a small city in France’s southeast not far from Toulon. More compellingly, a recent Ifop (Institut Français d’Opinion Publique) poll in Le Nouvel Observateur gave the National Front 24% in next year’s elections for the European Parliament, five points ahead of Hollande’s Socialists and four times what they received in the last European election in 2009. France is not alone. Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi party is now the third largest in Greek politics. The Freedom party in Austria garnered 21.4% of the vote in September’s election, boosting its share by almost four points. Vlaams Belang in Belgium, which advocates the independence of Flanders, saw gains in last year’s regional elections. The UK Independence Party is expected to do well. Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim populist, is running strongly in opinion polls.
It is the center-left that is losing ground. Gains by the far-right in Europe have been nearly matched with gains from the far-left. The leftwing Syriza movement in Greece is expected to do well. In Germany, the far-left Die Linke, composed of disaffected social democrats and former East German communists, is now the third largest in Germany’s Bundestag. The Communist party in the Czech Republic has high expectations for the upcoming national elections.
We should never forget that the line that stretches from the far left to the far right is not linear, it is circular. There was very little difference between Communism and Fascism. Both were totalitarian. Both were intolerant. Both saw the state as interventionist in the economy. Both murdered millions of their own people. The same is true today. Increased nationalism, xenophobia, deep recession and a desire for even more state intervention characterize both extremes.
At its heart, most politics is economic. When economies are doing well, with people happily employed and making good incomes, goods readily available, inflation moderate and the government responsive, but subservient, to the wishes of the voters, dissension is typically non-existent.
But that is not the case today. Economies are struggling and unemployment is high. Governments, on which so many depend, have become fiscally shaky. Much of what we see in Europe appears to be a pendulum swinging back from the unintended consequences of the welfare state and a political correctness that causes states to focus on the trivial as opposed to the imperative. For sixty years an increasingly patronizing government assumed more and more responsibility for the lives of its citizens. The relationship between the people and the state is symbiotic. Governments can only live off taxation of or expropriation from the private sector. The larger government becomes the more money it demands; therefore, the less the private sector has for its own purposes. In large part, and with exceptions, that has become the fate of Europe. The consequence has been the backlash we are now experiencing.
In the early 19th Century, a Swiss-born French writer, Benjamin Constant, published an essay, “The liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns.” The essay has been reprinted by the Liberty Fund, Inc. It can be found on their website, www.libertyfund.org, or by Googling the author and the name of the essay. It was written almost two hundred years ago, yet its lessons are enduring. M. Constant, argued that ancient liberty was a collective freedom, allowing all citizens to participate, to deliberate in the public square – the majority ruled; there were no minority rights. The individual was subject to the authority of the community. Modern liberty gave the individual the right to express his own opinions (women at the time were not accorded the same rights), to purchase and dispose of property, to come and go without accounting for one’s motives. “Individual liberty,” he wrote “is the true modern liberty. Political liberty is its guarantee, consequently political liberty is indispensible.” The problem M. Constant saw was the gradual but insidious surrendering of individual liberty to the grasping hands of the state. If we become too absorbed in the pursuit of our own pleasures, simultaneously asking more of the state in terms of security and comfort, we risk giving up our right to share in political power. M. Constant goes on: “They [political leaders] are so ready to spare us all sorts of troubles, except those of obeying and paying! They will ask of us: what, in the end, is the aim of your efforts, the motive of your labors, the object of all your hopes? Is it not happiness? Well, leave this happiness to us and we shall give it to you.” Those words provide meaning and should sound a warning to all Americans, as we consider the direction Mr. Obama has chosen for our country.
Barry Goldwater in 1964 was equally admonitory: “Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth.” It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that “democratically” elected leaders, like Adolf Hitler in 1933, who subsequently grabbed absolute power campaigned by appealing to emotions and nationalism. He made promises, but he never ran on the notion that absolute power was the goal.
Constant’s words are a reminder that very little in life is new – that the problems in Europe and the trends in the United States are repetitions of previous histories. Governments operate most efficiently when they compartmentalize their citizens, increasing rules and making people more dependent and subservient. They do so for reasons of self-aggrandizement and to increase personal power. Political correctness has made officials fearful of offending and punishing those who deliberately deride local customs and violate laws. A desire to be seen as benevolently tolerant has allowed Muslim extremists to flourish. The effect has been segregation and impediments to integration. Immigrants should be welcomed, but they should understand that the laws, rules and customs of the countries to which they are immigrating must be obeyed, even as they may be different from the ones of the country they are leaving. And immigrants should always be encouraged to become part of the community – not isolated to fester.
A study earlier this year from Chatham House, an independent think tank for international policy based in London, found that populist extremist parties (PEPs) are one of the most pressing challenges facing European democracies. However, their study showed that those PEPs that are allowed to participate in the wider political system tended, over time, to move away from extreme positions. Inclusion, they claim, works. Mainstream political parties, according to Chatham House, should also ensure that they are part of their local communities, with links to local groups and forums. They admit that economic grievances over jobs and housing are part of the cause. But the greater fear, they worry, stems from those who are susceptible to the siren call of extremism – that immigration and minority factors threaten national culture.
It may be that it is impossible to prevent the bob of a pendulum from retracing its arc – that, as Newton explained, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nevertheless, the backlash that appears to be occurring in Europe and finding its place in extremism is something for which we should all be concerned. Mr. Goldwater also proclaimed, correctly, that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” But what we are seeing in Europe appears to have an uglier visage. In part, it may be a natural reaction to a socially overly-paternalistic state and to a political-correct state that has stepped beyond the borders of commonsense and civility. For that, leaders like M. Hollande should take responsibility, but when extremism is motivated by hatred and prejudice it risks emulating those dark days of the 1930s.
“The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams