futurism

Are the 2010s the new 1930s?

Two political scientists talk about why we should panic, at least a little bit.

by Drew Brown
Jan 12 2017, 4:14pm

We live in an age of uncertainty. Russian cyberspies are going hog wild in our .gov inboxes. The old global order is falling to pieces. All conventional wisdom about how the world works has to be thrown out the window. There are wars and rumours of wars. Truth and falsehood are indistinguishable and people now think the CIA is good. Also, there are Nazis everywhere.

If you feel disoriented amidst the Brave New World of 2017, you are not alone. Lots of people are feeling, fairly or otherwise, that things are unglued in a way they haven't been in a very long time. The sudden ascendance of right-wing authoritarian populism around the world has made a lot of people anxious about what's around the corner.

But is it really that bad? Are we really living through a rerun of the 1930s? Is Donald Trump really Orange Hitler and are we tumbling into World War Three? (I mean, Trump actually tweeted "Are we living in Nazi Germany?" this week.)

Even though I sacrificed the best years of my life pursuing a PhD in political theory, tackling these questions all by myself is a bit above my meagre grad-student paygrade. So I got in touch with Dr. Luke Ashworth, head of the Political Science department at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, in the hopes that two eggheads are better than one.

We established that you should probably panic, but only a little bit.

VICE: So when you're thinking about the sort of long-term, big picture stuff... what is it about the contemporary period that reminds you of the way the world was 80 years ago? 
Dr. Luke Ashworth: There's a big caveat you've got to throw in there, which is that history doesn't repeat itself… but it rhymes. I think what we're looking at is history rhyming.

In terms of far right politics, there are a lot of things that are not going to repeat themselves. A big one that's probably not going to repeat itself—was the role of all the returning veterans from the Great War. A lot of the 1930s far right movements were fuelled by former veterans, and that gave it a militaristic flare. You're not going to see that here. 

The so-called alt-right don't tend to march in straight lines in glorified uniforms. These guys are wearing cargo pants...they haven't got grand ambitions for conquest.

Another thing that we have to understand about far right politics, and fascistic politics, and populist politics on the right is that it isn't some kind of mystical throwback. When we do a lot of political science, students often think you can divide political systems into two neat categories: there's democracies and non-democracies. It doesn't really work like that.

Actually, if anything fascism, Nazism, far right populism... it's kind of the evil twin brother of democracy. It's populist. It's completely different than, say, a legitimist regime, like the Kaiser or Czarist Russia. It shares a lot with democracy in terms of popular mobilization, concerns about the "common man" or the "common person," the sort of "anti-elitism" that you get in the discourse of the far right. That's the stuff that's surviving, and where you can see the parallels between now and the 1930s.

And it's new. It's not an old ideology. It's not something that's existed pre-industrialization, even though it's something that might like to hearken back to the past.

Anti-Trump rally in NYC - April 14, 2016. Image via Wikipedia.

Yeah, historically the fascism(s) that have existed in Europe were characterized as hyper-traditionalist, but that's not totally true. They're counter-revolutionary in the sense that they promote a sweeping social change, but not in the "progressive" or socialist sense of "revolution."
Yes, that's it. Often it is reactionary, and they do hanker after a golden past. But you know the problem with nostalgia: "nostalgia isn't what it used to be," because it never was what it was!

They have this nostalgia but actually when you look at fascist politics, it does tend to be really quite modern. We often forget that actually in that sense it's not some kind of throwback that we can cast in the dustbin of history. It keeps coming back.

It's weirdly, intimately tied to modernism. Even futurism, right? 
Futurism! Good example.

Yeah. The aesthetics of fascism were all hyper-modern.
So on the one hand, you've got them hearkening back to ancient Rome—very selectively—but at the same time exalting the bomber and speed and so forth. So you get that kind of weird, weird mix.

In that sense, fascism really is the ultimate pastiche ideology. It ultimately comes down to the defense or re-establishment of social hierarchy, so anything that can be recruited into that operation can and will be. 
And if one of those elements is populist politics, that's what it's going to do. And that's another thing. I think it's not only about the 1930s. Perhaps the other date we should be concerned about is 1980. The 1980s is when, after a crisis, the post-war Western world was reformed, and then it became global with the collapse of communism. In some respects, our world now has some parallels in the late 1970s. But the transition in the 70s and 80s was a much more gentle, more constitutional, change. We don't know quite where this is going to go. And it's a bigger crisis in some respects as well.

But the thing is with global orders—once you add in "time," it destabilizes the concept of "order"—the thing is that global orders don't actually last very long. They last matters of decades.

Right. So, obviously one of the big political differences between the contemporary world and the older global orders is... there used to be a Soviet Union. There is nothing in the world like that today. 
Yeah, "what's the alternative?" I think that's E.H. Carr, the one who said that after Stalingrad, he saw the Soviet role as being a sort of "negative dialectic" to the West, and therefore serving some positive role. Not necessarily for the Soviets themselves, but for the West. Forcing them to actually do things, to react to the Soviet challenge.

Do we have that anymore? 
Well, there's really no threat to the West.

Well, the political threat is entirely internal, or at the margins of empire.
Or it's long-term, like climate change. That really also does change the dynamic. What's the possibilities for resistance to the far right? I'm particularly concerned about the collapse of social democracy. When the choice is neoliberalism or barbarism, that's not much of a choice for lots of people.

Yeah... and I think there is an argument to be made that that's partially what happened in the US, right. Faced with the choice between barbarism and neoliberalism, people voted for barbarism. I think the most compelling explanation for that is the Freudian one, in that it psychically feels very good to just tear things apart.
Ahhh, yes. [laughing] Thanatos! The death wish!

Exactly! There is a satisfaction in breaking other people... and yourself... and the world.
Civilization and Its Discontents... yes, exactly. A reaction against the guilt complex.

I mean, that's what I think. But that's slightly more nebulous and harder to quantify..
[laughing] Well, it does seem to be a trend.

Totally. We've talked mostly about America, but this is definitely a broader Western phenomenon. Arguably it goes further, if you want to lump ISIS into this, as a sort of tremendously reactionary, death-obsessed ideology.
I think you're right. Another thing with the 1930s is that there were far right movements in lots and lots of countries, and in fact there was a very strong far-right movement in France. But where it succeeded was on the frayed edges. You got the dictatorships in the Balkans, Iberia, Germany—which wasn't as badly off as it thought it was, but talked itself into a frenzy... Italy's another one, nationalist dictatorships in China and Japan.

We're seeing a bit of that there, if you look at it from a global perspective. There's a lot of similarities with what's happening in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Western Europe, North America.

But the difference is, a Trump in the United States, or even a Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or a Le Pen in France... they're going to have to deal with a very strong rule of law and an independent judiciary, with all of those kind of small-c conservative structures that are often not going to let them do all the crazy things they'd love to do. Like Trump saying he wants to lock people up or revoke their citizenship for burning the flag. That's not going to happen because of the safeguards.

Those safeguards are a lot weaker in Hungary and Poland. They're almost non-existent in Turkey. In Turkey we've seen what this new authoritarianism can really look like when it doesn't have any kind of judicial or constitutional controls on it: the arrest of university lecturers, high-ranking military judges, the closing down of newspapers. Even Hungary and Poland, neither of which is looking particularly good, they cannot do those things. And they lose, they lose political battles. I can see the same things happening to Trump or Le Pen and Wilders.

What worries me more there is that they'll change the political centre of gravity. That it will become acceptable, as we've seen post-Brexit in the UK or the United States or even in Canada following the vote in the US, where it's becoming a lot more acceptable to say racist things, or to take a very narrow nationalist line on a whole series of topics. Things you'd never say in public a year or two ago now becomes acceptable.

I'm not quite sure where the chips are going to fall here. And part of the problem might be, as you were saying earlier, that there's no fear of an external threat, that forced at least some consensus on the table. In the late 70s and early 80s, you always had to be very aware of the Soviet Union.

Those external threats haven't really existed for the last 30 years. ISIS and Putin are just not major security threats, unless you live in Lithuania or Iraq.

So... on a scale of 1-10, how worried should we be about the future? 
Well... I'm optimistic.

Yeah. I sort of oscillate between optimism and, like, "this is it, game over."
Again, you take the long approach. Things have been a lot worse, and these things change on a dime. And replay never plays like the original.

The important thing is not to underestimate these far right movements because they come out of industrial society. They are thoroughly modern. That kind of populism is very much within the DNA of our society.

Having said that, it's got a long history of failing. So on the one hand, I get very worried when I see these so-called alt right meetings and you see this kind of replay. But at the same time, you realize that, really, these guys are not that bright. And we've come such a long way in terms of developing our societies, in terms of creating a much more multicultural society, a much more open society. So I'm not sure that these guys are going to necessarily have a long-term future.

That said, as we can see from the 1930s, they are perfectly capable of making one hell of a mess in the short term.

I think we can solve those problems. We can get a global order going that deals with the failures of neoliberalism, that deals with issues of both global inequality and inequality within our society, and that can deal with the fact that our financial system is out of control.

But there's that third horseman of the apocalypse: climate change. Which can't wait. That does worry me, because I see an acceleration of climate change. It's starting to ramp up and there's still a lot of people who doesn't realize that this is a serious problem, who still feel that they can ignore it. Many of these people that are emerging on the far right are serious climate change skeptics, deniers, and... we need action in the next four years. Ironically, their greatest contribution to human history, their most infamous contribution, may be inactivity on something where we need action.

The one moment you actually need people to be thinking politically on a grander scale is the moment everybody turns inward.
Absolutely. And in some respects that is a throwback to the 1930s. The climate change deniers are almost a version those who didn't think that Herr Hitler was a problem. There's an appeasement aspect there. You've got this existential threat and you haven't really grasped the importance of this existential threat.

I think the greatest legacy of Trump may be just making it so that we react to late to the major existential threat that we really don't have the infrastructure to properly deal with. That's a concern.

Yes. [Awkward pause]
...but I remain optimistic! It's been worse!

Yes... it could always be worse…
[both laugh nervously]

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