I will wager that is not often that bloggers of any stripe who focus on contemporary issues feel the need or desire to resort to using ancient Greek mythology to make points about the topics they discuss. But today I will attempt that very behaviour using the analogy of the Lernaean Hyrda to argue that as things stand Europe stands on a cross roads at which it would do well to heed the lessons of history. While I’m sure any who have read to this point, digesting what some may feel is my most tortured introduction to a post yet, will already know the story I will begin by briefly summarising the story of Heracles and the Hydra.
According to an epic poem of Greek mythology, Heracles in an act of atonement for the murder of his sons was instructed by an oracle that he should serve the king Eurystheus for twelve years and perform any task which the king set him. If he was successful in this task then he would finally be rewarded with immortality, allowing him his place alongside the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. During his tenure serving the King Eurystheus Heracles was given in all twelve tasks to perform, the second of which was to slay the Lernaean Hydra. The Hydra as recorded in ancient myths was a many-headed serpentine beast whose defining trait was a form of regeneration where for every one of its heads that was cut off, it would grow two in place of the original. The beasts one weakness was that it only remained invulnerable as long as it retained one central head. To combat the Hydra, Heracles aided by his cousin Lolaus cauterized each neck stump as he beheaded the beast so as to prevent their regrowth and eventually used a sword given to him by the god Athena to decapitate the last and central head. Commentators in more modern times have studied this story and described the idea of the Hydra as a personification of the feeling of hopelessness being as the beast would seemingly endlessly recover from the most grave of wounds its suffered meaning that only a hero with steely determination could ever hope to vanquish such a monster. Further to this in assessing the story of Heracles fight with the Hydra for hidden meanings people have often suggested that the myth is a parable for dealing with a problem completely and not leaving loose ends that will later come back to haunt us.
Now that I have summarised this particular part of Heraclean myth in as much detail as any reader should have to tolerate considering they have likely come here for political discussion I will now progress with the task at hand. I intend, using the analogy of the Hydra, to suggest that the ideology of Fascism and other far-right political movements is very much alive in Europe at this point in time as a result of the established political orders inability to deal with central problems that give rise to such movements. This inability or even lack of desire to address the issues that give rise to such discontent is critical as we have already once witnessed the monstrous ideology of Nazism bring Europe to its knees and only a fool would dismiss out of hand the worrying parallels that can be drawn between the crises of Europe in the 193os and the those of Europe now.
It cannot be denied that at this juncture in time that the economies of many European countries face an acute crisis as things stand. The stability of the Eurozone has suffered massively as a result of the lack of confidence in several European countries to repay or refinance their debts without the help of outside parties. As a result of these sovereign debt crises, the countries whose economies have been so embattled, namely Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain and now Cyprus too have reached out to the European Union in their hours of need for financial help presumably to stop an otherwise inevitable mass exodus from the European Union. The help that was sought in bailing out these struggling economies was ultimately given although the nature of such help probably left much to be desired in these countries as in all cases the loans that were given depended on the ability and willingness of the country in question to completely restructure its economy to suit the tastes of the German dominated European Central Bank. The restructuring of economies to suit the requirements of the ECB included approaches such as swingeing austerity cuts and in the most recent case of Cyprus, savings levies and capital controls to prevent any runs on banks. Such methods to satisfy the requirements of the ECB are ultimately ill advised as they are based far more on the financial models of strong economies such as that of Germany which in all likelihood could survive these methods – whereas an already struggling economy of a financially speaking weak Southern European country such as Greece is unlikely to be able to cope with such methods which have even been criticised by economists such as Paul Krugman who have argued that the effect of such austerity will be to further prolong any recession.
The other issue thrown up by such vigorous restructuring of economies is that it has resulted in many cases in large scale unemployment which is where the real political problem that concerns me arguably begins. With such a massive increase in unemployment and the overall decrease of financial stability in these countries, large groups of disaffected disproportionately young people being as these often form the cohort of the unskilled workers, find themselves branching out in the hope of finding radical solutions to their problems. In the past the radical solution that the unemployed might have turned to could have equally been radical left wing, communist or socialist movements but times have changed and such movements have fallen out of favour all over the world. In the mean time, with increasing political liberalisation throughout much of Europe since the end of the Cold War and the large scale assimilation and adoption of neoliberalist political policy in many countries, the far more common form of contemporary popular opposition to governments has mutated into a more right leaning approach with tendencies for this to stretch all the way towards militant xenophobia and virulent anti-Islamic groups.
Such groups can and do emerge in times that are remarkable for their lack of crisis and I make no attempt to deny their emergence during such times. The relationship between such groups and times of political crisis is that during said crises these groups suddenly become much more appealing to the population as they preach radical solutions to problems which the already established political order have failed to resolve. For an example of such a case we need look no further than Germany prior to the Nazis. The country had a history of extreme right wing movements that pre-dated any major economic crisis and instead focussed its rhetoric instead on the threat of communism inspired by the recent Russian revolution. This extreme right movement known as the Freikorps and its paramilitary groups controlled swathes of Germany during the early Weimar republic and would go on to form an early vanguard of the Nazis. Despite the considerable power which such a movement maintained they were never particularly popular as the threat of communism was hardly the most credible threat that face post WW1 Germany. However given the great depression of the 1930s and the mass withdrawal of American investment from Germany and the economic crisis that followed, the Nazi party, in part made of former Freikorp elements, managed to use this event as a catalyst and gain much more support from the German populace.
Central amongst the issues that the Nazi party, as the most successful of extreme right wing movements in Germany, attempted to resolve was the unemployment crisis caused by the Great Depression. Before the crash a relatively healthy amount of unemployment was evident in Germany with the figure cited at or around 1.25 million people. By the end of 1930, so only roughly three months in to the Great Depression the rate of unemployment was 15.3% meaning that nearly 4 million people were out of work. Two years into the Depression, German unemployment over 30% of the German workforce was unemployed and it was famously in this same year that the Nazi party and also the extremist communist party both started to gain ground in national elections. Similarly in nearby Spain, the prime minister at the time Jose Primo de Rivera resigned in 1930, followed by the ousting of King Alfonso XIII in the following year. A fragile democracy was eventually established although it was compromised by economic problems and social discontent which culminated in the divisive election of 1936 and the subsequent Spanish Civil War which is famously were much of the Nazi air force and elements of the SS gained their first active combat training.
The reason I have just highlighted the unemployment statistics of Germany and the role economic crises also played in the Spanish civil war is that right now in the wake of the current economic crisis currently battering the defences of Europe, mass unemployment is a common feature in almost all the cases of countries that have been bailed out by the ECB. For an article discussing this in greater detail click here , but for summary I will now quote the most important (read worrying) figures. The figures for both Spain and Germany in December or 2012 are over a record 26% of the workforce unemployed and the overall unemployment rate for the Eurozone countries was 12% which again is frighteningly high.
Much as was the case in pre-Nazi Germany, the existence of far right movements throughout Europe predates this economic crisis. For example the BNP, the EDL are both shining examples of movements here in the UK that existed regardless of any economic crisis and instead based their movements more around a broadly supported cultural opposition to the supposed “Islamification” of Europe. Similarly the Greek movement Golden Dawn also had existed for many years before the current crisis began and simply lingered in the peripheries since its inception until things started to look less than rosy for the Greek economy. Both of these movements exhibit the fact that despite the tortured legacy of extreme right wing movements in Europe that they still garner support to this day. Why movements so reminiscent of the Nazi party continue to gain any support what so ever has to be one of the greatest mysteries of contemporary politics.
If pressed on the matter, I would suggest that the origin of support for such movements stems from their two pronged approach towards politics in firstly, offering radical solutions to the key issues of the day and secondly, blaming those issues on overly convenient scapegoats that are already the victims of fairly widespread political prejudice. To highlight what I mean, in the case of Nazism as the most infamous example of a successful right wing movement, the promises made revolved around ending the economic and subsequent employment crisis of the 1930s which in their view and the view of their supporters had in some part been caused by the dreaded World Jewry. It is perhaps central that for such groups to succeed that they meet both the criteria of offering radical but plausible solutions to contemporary issues and also offering convenient scapegoats for said issues to be blamed on. I highlight this as it is notable that the EDL in the UK only fulfil one of these criteria in having convenient bogeymen to blame the countries problems on and have relatively speaking floundered compared to Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-fascist movement which has gone from strength to strength in the wake of the crisis which they have offered solutions for whilst being able to blame the crisis on a corrupt and inefficient political class for the whole series of events.
Ultimately, whatever the origin of support for such movements that there is support at all is the main problem of Europe as things stand. The Hydra that is extreme right wing politics is one often preceded by economic crisis and despite the lessons of history we still haven’t dealt with the main head of this particular monster and so are damned to keep seeing its reappearance and fighting against it. To combat this Hydra effectively rather than weapons of combat what is needed is an evaluation of and perhaps movement away from the economic practices of extreme capitalism which when it fails destroys the livelihoods of millions and drives recruits into the arms of extreme movements. Another weapon in the struggle against this Hydra which we need to utilise is the effective combating of stereotypes and scape-goating that is used to create causes for the economic crises that blight us. It is currently far to easy for extremist elements for example in Greece and Cyprus as seen here and here to blame or attack migrant workers and leftists for the crisis when the reality is that if there is a true enemy of the people in both these cases that the difference between the victim and victimiser is not race but class. The lesson of this post in its totality is that until we deal with the roots of the problem of extreme right wing politics that we currently face then we will in all likelihood see its constant recurrence just as we are currently witnessing with all the horrors that this entails.