Are we living through a new “Weimar era”? Constructive resolutions for our future

It has been argued that
progressives should drop the 1930’s analogy altogether, on the grounds that
this risks identifying the threat posed to democratic societies as inherent in
the very demos itself.

The end of the Weimar Republic. Adolf Hitler greets President Paul von Hindenburg, in Potsdam, Germany, on March 21, 1933, in a pose designed to project an image of Hitler as non-threatening to the established order. Wikicommons/US Holocaust Memorial Museum; US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of B. I. Sanders. Some rights reserved. The infamous
“March of Independence
” that took place in Warsaw on November 11, last
year, has raised once again the question of whether we are living through a new
version of the 1930s. While commentators, scholars and politicians are making extensive
use of this historical analogy, its meaning remains ambiguous. It has been
argued that progressives should drop it altogether, since it risks fostering a
conservative interpretation of the current economic and political crisis, which
identifies the threat posed to democratic societies as existing in the very
demos itself.

However, the problem lies less in the analogy than in
the way in which the latter is framed. Although it can be used to uphold
technocratic policies, it can also serve democratic and progressive purposes. DiEM25’s
proposals, such as our ambitious “European New Deal”, are precisely the living
proof that the lessons from our dark past can be learnt and transformed into
constructive resolutions for our future. Now, it is time to prepare for
translating such resolutions into action, starting with the next EU parliamentary

As widely reported by
media outlets worldwide, tens of thousands of far-right nationalists and
neo-fascists flooded the streets of Warsaw on Poland’s Independence Day.
Demonstrators displayed old fascist symbols and chanted slogans such as “We want God”, “White Europe of brotherly nations”,
“Remove Jewry from power”
. Such
a march is the clear sign that Europe is facing a serious threat posed by the growth
of far-right movements
, which has been so far
downplayed, or outright ignored, both by the conservative and the liberal wings
of the establishment.

Moreover, the rise of
neofascism and far-right extremism cannot be discounted as a symptom of the
immaturity of East European democracies, given that West European ones have proved not at all immune to the
same menace
. Since this surge is
clearly related both to the “Great Recession” into which the world economy has
sunk since 2007 and to the crisis that has been crippling the very foundations of
modern liberal democracies in recent years, we are left to wonder whether “we are living through another 1930s”. If so, in which sense is this historical analogy

Elite syncopations

DiEM25 is built
precisely on the assumption that the steady disintegration of the European Union
is threatening to push our continent back to those years. Such an analysis
seems now commonplace, as commentators, scholars and politicians have started
to make extensive use of it. It has been argued, for instance, that the
election of Donald Trump has brought the USA into a “Weimar phase” in their history. However, as argued by Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg in the Jacobin
, seeing our own
predicament “through the lens of the Weimar Republic, then, comes with
considerable peril”, since this might fuel élitist and technocratic
responses, based on the assumption that “democracy’s survival depends on
restricting the people’s power and on forming an unelected, bureaucratic elite shielded
from public scrutiny”.

Such an assumption is
clearly spelt out in Andrew Sullivan’s short essay on why America is ripe
for tyranny
. In this essay, Donald
Trump is depicted as a quasi-fascist rabble-rouser whose success is to be
imputed to the undoing of the “large, hefty barriers between the popular will
and the exercise of power” that had been constructed by the Founding Fathers,
as well as to the frustration inflicted on white working-class Americans by the
excessive demands of “minorities”. Therefore, instead of highlighting the dangers
posed by the insurgence of neo-fascist movements, this conservative
interpretation of the “back to the 1930s analogy” ends up amalgamating those
movements with all other expressions of discontent with the current status quo. Such a narrative, however,
is both analytically fallacious and politically misleading, and this for four
main reasons.

Four arguments from Hitler and Mussolini to Arendt and

First, historically
speaking, the Nazi regime cannot be viewed as the result of an “excess of
democracy”, since Adolph Hitler never received an absolute majority in the
ballots and his rise was made possible by the support of conservative elites, who were willing to use him as an extreme measure
against the “Red peril”. The same could be argued for the rise of Benito
Mussolini in Italy: the March on Rome, which persuaded king Victor Emanuel III
to appoint him as Prime Minister, was the culmination of a mobilization of
fascist “black shirt” squads against left-wing parties, trade unions and workers’
councils, while his first cabinet included “nationalists, two Fascist ministers, Liberals and
even…two Catholic ministers from the Popular Party”

Second, such a
narrative overemphasizes the mass support that neo-fascist and far-right
movements can gather. The problem with those movements lies less in their
electoral and militant strength than in the fact that their ideas “are seeping into the mainstream”, thus pushing rightward the entire political spectrum.

Third, as Bessner and
Greenberg further observe, the thinking that underpins this interpretation of
the insurgence of neo-fascism risks exacerbating, rather than to mitigating,
the threat that it is supposed to avoid: “while xenophobia and racism remain
critical to understanding populism’s appeal, the sense that people have no
control over their own government and that too much power is concentrated in
the hands of unaccountable elites also fuels popular outrage”. 

Fourth, such a use of
the “back to the 1930s analogy” exclusively focuses on the pathological and
conjunctural aspects of fascism, while overlooking the “structurally” fascist,
or even Nazi, features of our own democratic societies. As Hannah Arendt argues in Eichmann in Jerusalem, there exist very plausible reasons why we should
fear “a repetition of the crimes committed by the Nazis”, the most important of
which is the fact that our societies constantly render large sections of their
populations “superfluous”. Just to name two examples, on one hand,
technological progress is threatening to exacerbate what Karl Marx deemed to be
the human cost of economic production “under the rule of private property”: “production of too many useful things produces too
large a useless population”
; on
the other hand, the complex factors that are causing the so-called “refugee
crisis”, which is in fact a structural feature of the current state of the
world, also contribute to transforming human beings into “superfluous things”,
which must be allocated their place in a “sustainable” manner.

Two resolutions for the future

Should we thus conclude
that any analogy between our predicament and the crisis of the 1930s is doomed
to be misleading? According to Bessner and Greenberg, progressive forces should
retire all references to the Weimar Republic and the 1930s. In their view, this
is a necessary precondition for persuading people to reject “technocratic
politics and the close collaboration between the government and economic
elites”, while building “viable coalitions” committed to “distributionist
policies” and to addressing “the needs of the many”.

However, they overlook
the two main lessons that those analogies can still teach us. First, it would
be dangerously delusional to expect that the total collapse of the European
Union would bring forth a radical, progressive alternative to neo-liberalism.
Quite the contrary, it could only exacerbate the structurally fascist features
of our imperfect democratic order. That is why, for a start, the European Union
must be saved from itself: “Not out of love for European capitalism, for the
eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we
want to minimize the unnecessary human toll from this crisis”

Second, our current
predicament requires solutions that must both be bold and pragmatic, such as DiEM25’s
proposals for a “European New Deal”, which combine the lessons of Roosevelt’s New Deal
with the necessity of tackling such pressing issues as the ecological
transition and a bold “post-capitalist” outlook on the future. Moreover, such
proposals are tightly related to the political effort to identify a “third space”, beyond the establishment (both liberal and
conservative) and national-populist forces, which aim to recover a past that never
existed in the first place, in order to foster democratic control and
participation across the whole Europe.

For all those reasons,
it might be argued that the problem does not lie in the analogy itself, but in
the way in which the latter is framed. Although it can be used to uphold
technocratic policies, it can also serve democratic and progressive purposes.

DiEM25 is precisely the
living proof that the lessons from our dark past can be learned and transformed
into constructive resolutions for our future. Now, it is time to prepare for
translating such resolutions into action, starting from the next elections to
the European Parliament.                        


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