Tackling the far-Right requires more than a trial – we need to deal with root causes via a federal Europe, argues James Bartholomeusz.
Living at the time we do, still very much in the shadow of the 20th Century, the idea of a democratically-elected political figure being arrested and tried by the state stirs a host of dark recollections. After the arbitrary authoritarianism and state terror of fascism and Soviet communism, it has become an accepted norm in a pluralistic democracy that citizens should enjoy freedom of expression – and the extended freedom to represent those expressions in the political sphere. Yet, runs the old liberal quandary, are we obliged to tolerate intolerance? And what if rhetorical intolerance spills over into direct violence? Where is the line?
Such thoughts are revived by the news of the crackdown in Greece on the far-Right Golden Dawn party. The last two weeks have seen the arrest of 22 supporters including four MPs and the organisation’s two top figures, Nikos Michaloliakos and Christos Pappas. The trigger was the murder of the Left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas (pseudonym Killah P) on 18th September, which has been convincingly tied not just to rogue thugs or a separate ‘shock trooper’ wing but the party hierarchy itself. Neither is this the first of such attacks attributed to the group: the BBC reports that Golden Dawn has been linked to most of 250 racially-motivated violent crimes in the last two years, two of which resulted in the death of immigrant workers.
Simple, then – they should be tried as criminals, shouldn’t they? It’s not as if the party’s ideology is in question in any real way. Though it denies any neo-Nazi inspiration, the group pursues openly racist policies and major figures have become notorious as Holocaust-deniers – the party flag is even a Hellenicised swastika surrounded by a classical wreath. The problem is, though, that this is precisely not just a paramilitary terrorist cell; this is a political party. Moreover, it is a political party with 18 seats in parliament.
This is where liberal theory, unused to conditions of crisis, runs aground. Violent attacks – especially ones motivated by racist intent – should be punished and made an example of; yet the removal of the key members of a dissident political party by the ruling government is an act of reprehensible authoritarianism. It is hard to appeal to the vast majority opposed to Golden Dawn (as exhibited in protests at Fyssas’ murder across the country) or the fact that these men are ‘just extremists’ and so the usual principles don’t apply – after all, the point of liberal pluralism is that it defends the freedom of the minority against majoritarian rule. And there is also the difficulty that the Greek government’s democratic credentials are not exactly pristine at this moment. Successive administrations, in opposition to mass demonstrations and public disorder, have proven themselves little more than puppets for the Brussels austerity machine.
The trials of these men are not just Greek issues; they are European ones. The liberal dichotomy risks missing the point of the situation – this is not just a matter of balancing rights off against one another. That such an organisation can hold any seats in parliament whatsoever points to a profound failure of mainstream politics to deal with the upheavals of the Eurozone crisis. These are certainly unusual times. The liberal consensus of the last decades has failed because the social compact supposed binding European societies together has broken down. In the European debt crisis sovereignty has floated free from the national level and now resides in the semi-authoritarian institutions of the EU. A vacuum has been created where real, effective democratic politics would have once been an arena for positive reform. This means that the new far-Right is not just a problem in Greece: anti-immigrant parties are experiencing a renaissance all over the continent as citizens, bereft of genuine political representatives, look to targets to blame for their national impudence.
The political response to this new fascism has been the most inane and irresponsible one available. Mainstream parties (particularly those of the centre-Right with existing leanings in that direction) have tacked to further the Right in attempt to mop up alienated voters. Immigrants, aided and abetted in their imperial aims by the Left, are somehow to blame for the crisis; it is not just the EU but the entire European project that is to blame for the dissolution of our prized national identity and sovereignty. This stance is inane because it is patently untrue and irresponsible because it only fans the flames of extremism. Politicians may genuinely hope that they can nullify the threat of the far-Right by expressing racist ‘concerns’; what actually happens is that they normalise these views on the agenda as acceptable. What is perhaps more worrying than even the murder of Fyssas (which at least provoked widespread outrage) is the legitimacy conferred on the agenda of groups such as Golden Dawn by electoral success. Such manoeuvring on the part of Union pour un Mouvement Populaire during last year’s French presidential elections might have kept Sarkozy from as shattering a defeat as was expected, but it also led to Marine Le Pen and her Front National being treated as a valid political alternative.
The Greek courts, from this perspective, are faced with a dilemma. Treat Michaloliakos and his members as violent criminals and it relegates them to the level of thugs victimised by a liberal establishment; treat them as political extremists and the state is exercising arbitrary power against a dissident view. Either way, the trials risk allowing Golden Dawn to wrap itself in a mantle of pious resistance, to paint themselves as national crusaders against a political class owned by Germans and favouring Albanians and Asians over native Greeks.
We are not in a position to judge what intricacies of the Greek legal system will best deal with these men. What we can do is identify the root causes of the new fascism and deal with them effectively. Anti-European sectional nationalism, in any of the member states, is both socially destructive and economically ruinous – but neither should Europeans be lectured by a bureaucratic elite on how and why they should just shut up and stomach austerity. We can only tackle the far-Right by tackling the causes that have led to its new popularity. Some of these are material (job instability, depressed wages, failing social mobility, resource-starved public services); others are constitutional and due to the malformed state of the EU. Europe is certainly not a panacea that can solve all of these problems in one go, but none of them can be tackled in a satisfactory way without a federal union.
The far-Right (and, increasingly, mainstream parties) offer only a bleak vision for our continent, one in which ethnic identity is paramount and the unrestrained market ravages society, and each country attempts to ‘go it alone’ in an increasingly bitter contest with the developing world. We must counter this with a new vision for Europe, one in which plural identities are reinforced by a common European one, one in which the negative effect of pure market forces are moderated federally, and the economy is working once again towards socially-useful ends, one in which societies are rebuilt and a sense of social justice and the common good are placed at the heart of our politics. For this, Europe needs proper democracy, and it needs it now.
Image: “Ugly Sticker” courtesy of progressivenaturalist via Flickr. Published under Creative Commons 2.0.
Image: “Marine Le Pen à la tribune” courtesy of Rémi Noyon via Flickr. Published under Creative Commons 2.0