Monday, December 12, 2011

Dark Clouds Gather Over Europe

Strange news this Monday. While my work colleagues are discussing every game and nuance of this weekend’s pro-football matches, they seem to be oblivious to the world melting down around them (in other words, true American cublicle dwellers).

No less centrist a pundit than Paul Krugman seems to be worrying the Europe is losing its faith in democracy. He also fearlessly uses the other ‘D’ word – depression.

It’s time to start calling the current situation what it is: a depression. True, it’s not a full replay of the Great Depression, but that’s cold comfort. Unemployment in both America and Europe remains disastrously high. Leaders and institutions are increasingly discredited. And democratic values are under siege.

On that last point, I am not being alarmist. On the political as on the economic front it’s important not to fall into the “not as bad as” trap. High unemployment isn’t O.K. just because it hasn’t hit 1933 levels; ominous political trends shouldn’t be dismissed just because there’s no Hitler in sight.

Right-wing populists are on the rise from Austria, where the Freedom Party (whose leader used to have neo-Nazi connections) runs neck-and-neck in the polls with established parties, to Finland, where the anti-immigrant True Finns party had a strong electoral showing last April. And these are rich countries whose economies have held up fairly well. Matters look even more ominous in the poorer nations of Central and Eastern Europe

He singles out Hungary in particular as one country turning from a democracy into authoritarian rule. Interesting how you hear almost none of this in the mainstream press (I haven’t even seen it in the much superior British press):

One of Hungary’s major parties, Jobbik, is a nightmare out of the 1930s: it’s anti-Roma (Gypsy), it’s anti-Semitic, and it even had a paramilitary arm. But the immediate threat comes from Fidesz, the governing center-right party.

Fidesz won an overwhelming Parliamentary majority last year, at least partly for economic reasons; Hungary isn’t on the euro, but it suffered severely because of large-scale borrowing in foreign currencies and also, to be frank, thanks to mismanagement and corruption on the part of the then-governing left-liberal parties. Now Fidesz, which rammed through a new Constitution last spring on a party-line vote, seems bent on establishing a permanent hold on power.

The details are complex. Kim Lane Scheppele, who is the director of Princeton’s Law and Public Affairs program — and has been following the Hungarian situation closely — tells me that Fidesz is relying on overlapping measures to suppress opposition. A proposed election law creates gerrymandered districts designed to make it almost impossible for other parties to form a government; judicial independence has been compromised, and the courts packed with party loyalists; state-run media have been converted into party organs, and there’s a crackdown on independent media; and a proposed constitutional addendum would effectively criminalize the leading leftist party.

Taken together, all this amounts to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule, under a paper-thin veneer of democracy, in the heart of Europe. And it’s a sample of what may happen much more widely if this depression continues.

The stuff I underlined above is pretty much identical to measures Scott Walker is taking in Wisconsin, with the exception that party media organs are private, not state-run (the Milwaukee Journal and all AM radio are Walker supporters). The opposition party has not been criminalized yet, although Walker did threaten to have them arrested when they fled the state. In addition, Walker is trying to pass laws making voting more difficult for student and minorities. Walker also famously attacked unions (as far-right parties typically do), appointed cronies to high office, and proposed charging protesters for the costs of protesting (requiring them to obtain a permit and pay a fee). And this is in the heartland of the United States! Is it any wonder faith in democracy is waning around the world?

The Guardian fills in some of the blanks on the far-right rise in Europe:

Far right on rise in Europe, says report. Study by Demos thinktank reveals thousands of self-declared followers of hardline nationalist parties and groups

Here’s a gallery of Europe’s right-wing parties:,,711990,00.html

And see this map:

Even ethnic violence against that perennially marginalized group, the Gypsies, is rearing its ugly head:

A 16-year-old Italian girl whose claim that she was raped by Gypsies prompted a furious mob to launch an arson attack on a Turin Roma camp has admitted to police that she invented her story.

Hundreds of residents of the deprived Turin suburb of Vallette took to the streets on Saturday to protest after the girl, who has not been named, claimed she had been dragged behind a building and raped by two Gypsy men.

A splinter group of around 50 residents then marched towards a nearby camp where they reportedly called for all women and children to leave before throwing firecrackers and setting fire to caravans, shacks and cars.

Police officers evacuated the camp moments before the group arrived and no injuries were reported, but fire crews were unable to prevent the camp being destroyed.

Of course, we cannot ignore the creeping authoritarianism in the United States. Just weeks ago, pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas were used on peaceful protesters, while tent camps were ruthlessly demolished. Some notoriety was given to the raid on Occupy L.A., where a writer from the TV show Family Guy was among the protestors:

In contrast to the officers he said entered the scene with weapons, Patrick Meighan claims he was among a group of protestors during the early morning raid sitting Indian-style with their hands interlocked chanting words of peace. “The LAPD officers encircled us, weapons drawn, while we chanted ‘We Are Peaceful’ and ‘We Are Nonviolent” and “Join Us,” he wrote.

Meighan described officers ransacking the encampment one tent at a time. “As we sat there encircled, a separate team of LAPD officers used knives to slice open every personal tent in the park,” he blogged. “They forcibly removed anyone sleeping inside, and then yanked out and destroyed any personal property inside those tents, scattering the contents across the park.”

Meighan described in detail the physical tactics he said were used by police to get those who were peacefully resisting arrest to unlink from one another.

“It was horrible to watch,” he wrote, “and apparently designed to terrorize the rest of us.” He said he ultimately decided to voluntarily unlink his arms, yet was not spared an arrest that would later produce bruising, and nerve damage in his thumb and palm. Still, Meighan does not believe the arrests made that morning were, as he wrote it, “uniquely-brutal.” “The LAPD officers were just doing their jobs, as they understood them,” he blogged. Meighan says he wrote the blog to call attention to a differently injustice.

"We as a society, including the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD treat peaceful non-violent protesters one particular way, sort of give them the full force of the law. Whereas at the same time, there are folks who have defrauded our nation out of hundreds of billions of dollars, and those folks walk free."

Let’s not forget that not only Jews perished in Hitler’s death camps. Communists and homosexuals were also eliminated. Take note of the fact that one Republican presidential candidate operates a clinic to “cure” homosexuality, and another has just released an openly anti-gay advertisement. And note how “socialist” and “terrorist” are their favorite epithets.

We’ve already covered the National Defense Authorization Act, giving the president to power to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone, including American citizens, anywhere, including the United States homeland itself. And I’m struck by the eerie similarities between the Occupy movement and what’s going on in Russia. The response by the media, and the powers-that-be to a population that is finally refusing to be sheep is almost identical in both countries:

The Kremlin has been struggling to come to terms with its new politically active population. State-run television covered the protests, departing from its usual pro-government propaganda.

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov wrote in his blog: "I am happy – 10 December 2011 will go down in history as the day the country's civic virtue and civil society was revived. After 10 years of hibernation, Moscow and all Russia woke up."

Officials, however, continue to attempt to portray the protesters as traitors, following Putin's charge that Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, prompted the show of discontent.

Notice almost the same thing happened in America – first they ignored the protests completely. Then after violence broke out, they started reluctantly covering the protests with the line “We don’t know what they’re upset about”. Then the government and media portrayed “lazy hippies” in “drum circles” who just wanted a handout, rather than people incensed about the richest Americans controlling the government and economy for their own benefit. And in both cases, a somnambulant population suffering declining living standards under a corrupt political oligarchy finally decided to make their voices heard after decades of silence, shocking governments grown accustomed to doing whatever they want in a climate of apathy.

Taken together Krugman’s main point is true – we are now in a second great depression, and the world is coming apart politically just as it did then. Far-right parties, authoritarianism, suppression of dissent, saber-rattling, scapegoating, economic desperation, it’s all there. Add to that an environment stretched to the limit, a rapidly changing climate, the failure of globalized capitalism, rule by the banks, nuclear weapons and peak oil, and you’ve got a recipe for armegeddon.

And it’s only Monday….

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