Stop Talking About How Progressive Europe Is
America just wasn’t the same after that summer you spent backpacking across Europe. “Everything’s so much better there. The public transportation, the health care, solar panels everywhere and the legal beach nudity. No Jesus freaks. And no fat people!”
Europe gave us Helvetica, the typeface of corporate neutrality and reasonable social-democratic compromise. In Europe, there is a mild climate where democracy flourishes and genital-hating gun-nuts are kept far from the halls of power. As a great Frenchman once said, "we invented democracy, existentialism, and the blowjob."
America brought the world the religious right, God and guns, and to-hell-with-science evangelism. We’re the land of Glenn Beck, creationist theme parks, and Thomas Kinkade mall art galleries.
So it's pretty weird to see ultra-nationalists gaining massive popular support in places like France and the Netherlands, where school children are most assuredly getting body-positive sex ed classes.
In the recent French elections, the ardently anti-immigrant National Front's Marine Le Pen almost beat Sarkozy as the official right-wing candidate. Her party has genuine widespread support among the French working-class. In the Netherlands, the fervently anti-immigrant Party for Freedom is gaining ground. In Italy, there have been a rash of violent pogroms directed towards immigrant workers. Last month in Greece, an explicitly neo-Nazi party called Golden Dawn won 18 seats in parliament. And fun-and-sexy Budapest is now officially deemed “Europe’s Capital of Anti-Semitism.”
The surge of far-right groups in Europe has caught many observers by surprise. But people who actually know the continent understand how deep the roots lie. Even the supposedly super-tolerant Scandinavian states aren’t immune. Mass-murderers like Anders Breivik don’t just spring up out of nowhere.
Liberal European technocrats have spent the last few decades trying to turn the Continent into a “We Are the World” utopia called the European Union. But historically speaking, it’s a relatively new project--and one that’s completely gone to seed.
From the mass killings during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) all the way up to the Second World War (1939-1945), European elites spent at least three centuries turning the Continent into a slaughterhouse. Hitler and Mussolini weren’t aberrations from European tranquility; they were part of a continental lineage of rampant authoritarianism dating back to medieval times.
For us over here on the other side of the pond, the postbellum years were relatively clear sailing. The USA firmly put itself on the road to progress, capitalism, and liberalism after the Union Army crushed the slavers down south. Europe had to wait another 80 years before its right-wingers went into hiding. And it had to endure the annihilation of tens of millions of human beings just to get that far.
The aristocracy of Europe fell in line behind the Confederate States of America. Some of the most powerful statesmen in Europe spent the early 1860s fighting against Lincoln tooth-and-nail. France’s Napoleon III was itching to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy. England’s Prime Minister Lord Palmerston got even closer, sending 11,000 troops to Canada. And after the Civil War, Pope Pius IX, the Grand Wizard of European reactionaries, sent a portrait of himself to Jefferson Davis while he was imprisoned in Fort Monroe.
But hey, that’s just the 19th century.
Until recently, most people believed that after the 1800s, Europe was neck and neck with the USA in the race towards modernity. Sure, there were some archdukes, and barons marching around with golden epaulettes and peasant brains splattered on their boots, but it was all just ornamental. And besides, all those guys were shut down in the First World War, right?
In his book, The Persistence of the Old Regime, Princeton historian Arno Mayer shows that the “Old Regime” clung to power much longer than we thought. Capitalism, liberalism, communism, and socialism: the European aristocracy hated it all with a vigor that makes Rush Limbaugh look like Ira Glass. And they called the shots, forcing all the up-and-coming capitalists to kiss the ring. “It would take the two World Wars and the Holocaust, or the Thirty Years’ War of the twentieth century, to finally dislodge and exorcise the feudal and aristocratic presumption from Europe’s civil and political societies,” Mayer writes.
Anti-Semitic, anti-secular, misogynistic, and militaristic to the bone, the Old Regime kept Europe stuck in agrarian backwardness—peasants and landed nobles. I’ll take our Gilded Age robber barons any day of the week.
Reading about their kinks and customs will make you wanna bomb Downton Abbey to rubble. Even in England, one of the least backward countries in Europe at the time, “about 4,000 individuals still commanded 50 percent of all privately owned land” in 1914.
Living as we do under the tyranny of Goldman Sachs, it’s hard to imagine the time that capitalism was once a modernizing weapon that scared the shit out of the European ruling class.
Despite what confused comrades might have told you, it wasn’t the capitalists that started World War One, but the Old Regime: “The Great War was an expression of the decline and fall of the old order fighting to prolong its life rather than of the explosive rise of industrial capitalism bent on imposing its primacy.”
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination sparked World War I, was something like the Barry Goldwater of his time—powerful, mean, and stupid, with a cult of nuts ready to defend him. He was “the absolute incarnation of the resurgent ultraconservatism... an aggressive anti-democrat, anti-capitalist, anti-libertarian, anti-socialist, anti-Magyar, anti-Slav, anti-Semite, and anti-modernist.” Hugh Jackman in Kate & Leopold he was not.
The Old Regime pushed Social Darwinism in pretty much the same way our 21st century oligarchy promotes and subsidizes libertarianism and the free market. Social Darwinism “was both science and faith in an age increasingly torn between the two.” And like our libertarianism, “It provided both a fiercely conservative and a mildly progressive reading.”
Guys like Hitler and Mussolini weren’t even from the Old Regime--they were pathetic wannabes, petty bourgeois pretenders eager to impress an earlier generation of rulers. While most everyone else who fought in the trenches turned against militarism, these little suck-ups thought the Old Regime’s Great War was pretty goddamn swell, and were eager for another crack at it.
General Franco was in some ways the last surviving Old Regime groupie, keeping his country as backwards as possible for as long as possible, and grumbling about Freemasons, Jews, and Bolsheviks all the way to his death in 1975. To this day, you can go to jail in Spain for burning a picture of the monarch.
And now, as we sit back and watch ultraconservatism unspool Europe once again, we’re reminded of just how fragile and short-lived their progressive social welfare system really was.
The polite center-left and center-right politicians of Europe continue the austerity program, slashing spending and cutting jobs in order to clear the path for ever greater corporate profits. By focusing on making the land as hospitable to capitalism as possible, they’ve dredged up the gruesome reactionary ghoul that’s lived just beneath Europe’s soil for centuries. The Old Regime has returned—just this time, he's driving a Prius.
Connor Kilpatrick is the Managing Editor of Jacobin Magazine.