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The Meaning of Haider

02.28.2000 | POLITICS

Much has been written about Jorg Haider's ultra-right wing Freedom Party joining the Austrian government. Although the success of his and similar parties throughout Europe date back to the early 1980s, never has one been a full partner in national power. It is certainly a major event in the history of modern Europe.

Unfortunately much of the professional commentary has been relatively superficial, either criticizing or defending EU intrusiveness into the internal politics of a member state. And while the power and reach of Brussels is an important question for the future of the Union, it dwarfs in comparison to the deeper challenges represented by Haider himself. More thoughtful analysis has taken up the nature of the hard right in Europe, its history, and its prospects. No one has been more succinct and convincing in analyzing the substance and historical context of this threat than the British historian Mark Mazower. In deference, let us pass the mike:

"The real victor in 1989 was not democracy but capitalism, and Europe as a whole now faces the task which Western Europe has confronted since the 1930s, of establishing a workable relationship between the two. The inter-war depression revealed that democracy might not survive [serious economic and social dislocation], and in fact democracy's eventual triumph over communism would have been unimaginable without the reworked social contract which followed the Second World War. The ending of full-employment and the onset of welfare retrenchment makes this achievement harder to sustain, especially in societies characterized by ageing populations." In his book Dark Continent, Mazower shows that after each major trauma in the 20th century, democracy has been vulnerable to the point of collapse. After the First World War and the subsequent Depression, fascism filled the void created by discredited elites and their ideology; after the Second World War, real social democracy was established as a successful bulwark against both communism and a resurgence of fascism. Although the effects of globalization cannot be compared to those of world war and depression, they are indeed traumatic, and the resurgence of the hard and far right manifests the insecurity wrought by increased immigration and—more importantly—the return of mass unemployment. The question, then, is whether Europe will allow a repeat of the 1930s or hold on to the lessons of the 1950s. Will European Social Democratic parties continue abandon their commitment to social and economic justice, or will they rally against the 'logic' of tight and deflationary monetary policy, shrinking social safety nets, and privatization? As of now the prospects for the latter are grim.

If in fact the Left fails to offer a sustained, coherent and democratic critique of a system that undermines labor security and the economic well-being of the masses, then the future stage will be surrendered to the far right—populist but not democratic, responsive but not humane—as the only alternative to a discredited (neo)liberalism.

When the next major bust in the capitalist cycle occurs, the relative strategic placements of the Left and the Right will thus be of the utmost importance. The future strategic position of the Left will not appear out of a vacuum, however, but will depend on its ability to articulate a politics of justice and equality in the current climate of relative prosperity. The attack on the welfare state is already producing misery and backlash which is easily channeled into extreme right politics, and this backlash could easily spin out of control should a global economic meltdown occur. Haider is the tip of an as yet dormant iceberg.

The traditionally leftist parties that emerged from the ashes of WWII must not be tempted away from traditional commitments to social democracy. They must not be forced or blackmailed by American initiatives into rationalizing a "Third Way" in which the state fails to provide for its people. It will not do for Blair and company to appeal to the "realities" of the global economy or the "sacrifices" needed to stay "competitive." Social Democratic politicians who utter these pieties have corpses in their mouths, and by doing so they effectively remove themselves as counterweights to a right-wing extremism that will increasingly use the anxiety and suffering wrought by the dictatorship of the market to further agendas of racism and nationalism.

If this century teaches us anything, it is that democracy and its values—currently embodied in the EU—is fragile, and is wholly dependant upon its ability to feed, educate, and provide security. If democracy fails to do this, it will be discredited and replaced. If mainstream European politicians truly want to deter the growth of extremism, they will heed this and rethink their commitment to a global economic order driven by competition and fundamentally anarchic market forces. For within this system lies the seeds of its own destruction, as well as the seeds of a hundred Haiders. The graffiti is on the wall.

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