I haven’t written much this week, probably because I’m a little stunned by the situation Europe finds itself in. I am probably naive, but I was sure that Europe had achieved peace in formerly warring countries and that trade would allow us to establish stable relations with countries that have an authoritarian style but would also benefit from the commercial interaction of a global economy.
It seems that I was mistaken in not considering the perspective of authoritarian rulers. It seems that a defence alliance, if it consists of countries that passively oppose your authoritarian system, can be perceived as offensive and threatening. Therefore, Putin sees the defence alliance as an aggressor. There is no doubt that capitalism produces a competitive society and that consumption and ultimately greed are its driving force. A population that is content with its lot, buys only sustainable, durable items, and has no need for any of the cheap, short-lived goods on offer is not helpful to such an economy. Likewise, societies based on exports must constantly come up with new, attractive inventions and make existing goods attractive for sale.
Sometimes it must be obvious even to Putin that such an economy is better when there are fewer restrictions, but of course there are problems – as we see every day. We have many dissatisfied people in the West who are vocal about their discontent, whether it is the cost of living, inflation, injustice, prejudice and bigotry, or even contrived issues that many people don’t understand. Even in the West, we see threats to social cohesion and claims that liberal governments are becoming dictatorial. There is plenty to complain about, but that is something authoritarian regimes do not like. On the other hand, more and more people seem to vote for parties that want to make liberal countries more authoritarian and propose to weed out “leftist” groups. Oddly, it is often the same people who complain about dictatorial measures in the pandemic, which begs the question.
The demonstrations of authoritarian regimes are usually characterized by troops marching in goose step, phallic missiles, and flag-waving, smiling crowds. Dissonance is scorned and quickly tuned out, and a broad, coherent harmony is enforced, showing how those in power want their countries to be. No wonder, then, that the issues presented by the left are a horror to such regimes. When contentious issues are protested in the streets and media that only see injustice for ethnic and LGBTQ minorities, while other victims are seen as part of a privileged class merely because of their “whiteness” and are not included, it is strange that Marxist ideals are expressed in such protests. Strange, because the only Marxist regimes that have ever existed have always managed to imprison protesters who have tried to destroy their strict ideals of harmony. We only have to look at what happened to Pussy-Riot to see what chance some of the issues would have under authoritarian regimes.
I have similar doubts about the historical awareness of far-right protesters, especially those whose demeanour suggests a slovenly, undisciplined lifestyle, especially given the ideals of the people they are trying to copy. Very often they are okay with being seen as a mob reminiscent of lynching in the past, thereby committing a betrayal of the conservative values they intend to uphold. The best example was a British protest of far-right mobbers waving English flags and ostensibly defending British Christianity (whatever that is). The combination of Christian values and mobster tactics can be found elsewhere, probably as resistance to the influx of Islamic people, but they invoke the Crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries in doing so, which not only took the lives of Muslims, but also massacred Jews on their way to the “Holy Land.” (As portrayed in Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History (2001) by James Carroll, a former priest, who documents the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the long European history of religious antisemitism as a precursor to racial antisemitism.)
Together, the ultra-right and ultra-left may be useful in undermining those trying to build peaceful, liberal society that tries to find a course through the landmines of contention that are strewn before us, but it constitutes sawing off the branch you are sitting on. The issues that these groups have protested may be genuine, but the way they have been radicalised means that a peaceful solution that helps as many people as possible is postponed. Those who have no time for debate, who try to cancel other opinions, or stamp out any group that presents other policies, are not only short sighted, but fail to recognise where such tactics led to in the (not so distant) past. Above all, it ignores the fact that their behaviour is a form of absolutism, detached from any kind of criticism, dictatorial and violent.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said George Santayana in Chapter XII—Flux and Constancy in Human Nature” (Volume I) – not Churchill by the way – and we can see that he was right. We need bad experiences to be imprinted in our memory so that we are careful not to do the same thing again. I remember when I attended a West German school in the 1980s, there was a program in which students were taught the developments that led to Nazi Germany to show the abnormality of far-right doctrines and their results. This led to a widespread belief in Germany after the war that the military should not be rebuilt, and afterwards, when an Army was rebuilt, the possibility of conscientious objection. Another example is the lack of serious action against the far-right in East Germany, which has led to a rise in xenophobia. During the communist era political parties were banned, but students were not educated about how Nazism came about with an aim to preventing it happening again. It may be that the supposedly communist institutions were recognized as being too similar to the Nazi ones, and so a comparison was avoided.
However, considering the horrors of the last century, it seems surreal that we are once again talking about the possibility of war, especially when statements like “there can be no winners” are being circulated. I hope that in the near future we will find a diplomatic solution so that the sword of Damocles will be removed, and we can work on peaceful relations again.