When the 1930s depression hit the world, democracy reeled. Politicians ‘in power’ (yet powerless to do anything as their voters starved) were despised and hated – a hatred which increased as they tried to impose ‘austerity’ measures to contain the crisis. People turned to ‘easy-answer’ politicians and – by war, terror and the ballot box – democracies collapsed.
In the 1930s the visible enemy of western democracy was fascism, spearheaded by Adolf Hitler in Germany.
What is not generally realised, of course, is that, one by one, the states of central Europe fell to fascism by entirely peaceful and often overtly democratic means. The people of the Saarland voted peacefully and rationally in a plebiscite to go in with Nazi Germany. The Nazi occupation of Austria was ratified by a plebiscite so overwhelming that it is clear that the Nazis would have won even if they hadn’t arrested all the opposition leaders. And Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 was by invitation, albeit after intense bullying.
Internationally, before the onslaught of capitalism, weakened democracy was forced to fall back on ‘appeasement’ – letting the dictator have what he wanted, rationalising the capitulation, and hoping that this would somehow ‘buy him off’.
In a way, the world was lucky that Hitler was a madman. If he hadn’t invaded Poland (already, by the way, an extremely right-wing state itself), who knows how long fascism could have gone on picking off democracies by democratic methods. The Second World War gave the democracies the chance to fight, consolidated their support-base at home, and literally saved the world for democracy.
Note that all this was possible, because the world still worked in those days in terms of sovereign states. Germany, allied to Italy, conquered France, and was defeated by an alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Current Recession
As recession sweeps the world – and all the predictions are that it is going to deepen in 2012 – western democracy is again under pressure.
In some ways, the current recession is beginning to look – certainly in terms of domestic politics – like a re-run of the 1930s.
Democratic leaders seem powerless before the economic storm. The EU heads of state prevaricate and dither. Already, the democratic governments of Greece and Italy have collapsed altogether, to be replaced by corporatist ‘technocracies’ of bankers and economists. Spain, Ireland and Portugal have got new ‘right-wing’ governments which are enforcing unpopular ‘austerity’ measures in defiance of their populaces. In Britain, ‘Osbornomics’ hold (arguably, unelected) sway.
But this is a war unlike the danger democracy faced in the 1930s.
Then, the danger could be personified – Hitler. And it coalesced in the form of a sovereign state – Germany. Thus it was identifiable and resistable, albeit in a deadly war.
Today, the danger to democracy does not come from a single sovereign state. Let’s face it, the modern sovereign state as an entity appears virtually powerless – almost an irrelevance – against the forces threatening democracy.
Whence Today’s Danger to Democracy?
What makes the current danger to democracy so frightening, is that it does NOT come from an identifiable source, but is unseen, intangible. To explore this idea more, we need to think for a while about the nature of capitalism, and the role of democracy.
Capitalism is not a necessary hand-maid to democracy, though in the west the two have gone hand-in-hand.
But there is a distinct tension between the two.
Capitalists (more about them in a little while – for the moment, just go with the generic term) want freedom … by which they mean laissez faire, the right to do whatever they want, whatever the cost to others, in order to make money for themselves and their shareholders. (Think of the stereotype Ed-Milibandish ‘predatory’ firm, ruining the environment, using child-labour, using hard-sell etc.) Businessmen will tell you that THEY aren’t like that, and that it is a crass caricature of capitalism, which it no doubt is – but there is no doubt also that capitalism is that way inclined.
Democracy is usually assumed to be about freedom – freedom of speech, faith, opinion etc. But, to be honest, democracy-in-action is much more about restricting freedom; it is about the community imposing rules to prevent individuals and corporations behaving in a way which harms the community.
In Britain, democracy came AFTER capitalism. The laissez-faire capitalism of the early Industrial Revolution had led to such atrocities that democracy evolved in Britain essentially as a non-violent way to curb the excesses of the industrialists. And thus democracy’s apogee can be seen to be the Welfare State, which remains the ultimate attempt of the state to constrain capitalism for the benefit of the nation.
The problem we face today is that capitalism has gone global. It has outgrown the power of ANY one nation state to constrain it. When the Greeks looked as though they were going to refuse the required austerity measures, Greek democracy died – was assassinated. Even the collective power of the EU lies in thrall. ‘The Markets’ reign, and they appear to rule absolutely, unbiddable, unchallengeable … until all we have left, it seems, is appeasement – pump-priming the markets, enforcing austerity, rationalising the capitulation, and hoping that we can somehow ‘buy them off’.
From Whence Cometh My Help?
‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’, wrote the psalmist, ‘from whence cometh my help?’
The problem for governments is that, today, the danger does not lie in an identifiable ‘enemy’ whom we can fight. Western capitalism is simply how we have chosen to communicate with each other economically. When my wife and I have our benefits cut, our pensions frozen, our electricity prices raised, we are the victims of predatory capitalism. But when we sell our house at a profit, or I peddle my skills as an author, or we receive the dividend on our shares … then WE ARE the capitalists, the oppressors.
In the early days before antibiotics, doctors knew absolutely how to kill germs; bleach, as we all know, kills 99% of all household germs. But the problem was that the germs which were killing the patient were so intricately integrated into the biology of the patient that it was impossible to kill the germs without killing the patient. Capitalism, as a disease, is similarly invasive. At the moment it is killing society, but how do you root out the negatives without destroying the whole economy?
There are any number of commentators on the Left who have ‘answers’ to the current crisis – tax the companies, hammer the City, share the wealth. In the past, perhaps the state might indeed have been able to impose regulation upon business. Today, we are held to ransom by the threat to move overseas, by the worry that our borrowing rate will rise. Let’s face it, Standard and Poor’s could probably do for us with the stroke of a pen.
Is There Any Hope?
In the 19th century, democracy evolved as an alternative way to revolution to address the evil effect of capitalism on the population; in a world where capitalism is increasingly ignoring, and dictating to, democratic governments, we seem to be trapped between the prospect of economic and financial collapse on the one hand, and unrestrainable ‘predatory’ capitalism on the other. (‘As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him’, to continue my biblical allusions!)
The world looks as though it is going to be a very dark and dangerous place in 2012.
Faced with a world where humankind had many fewer resources to mitigate disaster, the Psalmist could only appeal to a higher force still: ‘My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.’
But God help us if, today, our only hope is God.