The only way to stop the fascists profiting from the breakdown of the Greek state is to offer a socialist alternative to capitalism
Golden Dawn party members. 'It is wishful thinking to expect fascism to be defeated through police action, or by simply praising democracy.' Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
Greece – and the rise of Golden Dawn – is an extreme parable of what has happened to many developed countries since the global crisis broke out in 2007. The policies of the Greek "rescue" – where the Greek people had no inkling what was afoot until the agreement was signed in 2010, leading to a tremendous spasm of anger – are instantly recognisable, if exceptionally severe. Wages, salaries and pensions have been cut; austerity has been imposed on the public sector; privatisation and liberalisation have been promoted. It did not take long for any hope of a change in approach following the collapse of Lehman Brothers to fade and for the forces of neoliberal economics, powerfully entrenched in ministries, international organisations, thinktanks and universities, to reassert themselves. By the middle of 2009 the familiar mix of favouring private capital, squeezing labour, attacking the welfare state and proclaiming the virtues of the market had prevailed.
The renewed neoliberal ascendancy has bred a sense of popular impotence in developed countries, rendered particularly dangerous by two features of the crisis. First, the root causes of the turmoil manifestly lie with private capital, particularly its financial component. In popular perception across the world, bankers are the main culprit, and rightly so. Second, and even more important, the crisis has not simply hit wage labour, which is the normal way of capitalism. Middle-class living conditions have also been ravaged as salaries and pensions fell, real estate took a hit, health systems suffered and education was disrupted.
This is the background to the rise of the extreme right in Europe, including fascism in Greece. As the economy collapsed and unemployment soared, the living conditions of working and middle class Greeks became unbearable. There are entire streets in Athens where no one holds a regular job, and many families rely on food handouts. Health and education are falling apart, while the state machinery is being dismantled. Helplessness has spread, together with a profound sense of national humiliation and loss of sovereignty in a country treated like a beggar by its EMU "partners". There is despair at the corruption of politicians and the effrontery of the unchanged networks of power. There is also a widespread conviction that democracy is a sham, protecting those who are to blame and masking the rising authoritarianism of the state.
Golden Dawn thrived in these conditions. It spoke against the "rescue" and denounced foreign bankers; it blamed illegal immigrants for the breakdown of law and order and the disruption of normal life; it ridiculed democracy promising to cleanse corruption; it sought to restore national pride by using the symbols of nationalism; it penetrated the security forces, themselves under great pressure from spending cuts.
This is much more than a criminal organisation that terrorises the streets. It is a fascist party that has acquired genuine support by worshipping violence, glorying in primitive racism and reasserting national greatness. These views, of course, offer no way out to a devastated society, and certainly none in the interests of working people. But when the normal conditions of life have been destroyed, when everything looks uncertain and threatening, even the barbarous message of Golden Dawn can find resonance. The extreme right across Europe is perfectly aware of that.
It is wishful thinking to expect fascism to be defeated through police action, or by simply praising democracy. The extreme right will retreat only when the living conditions of the majority are no longer disrupted to serve the interests of private capital; when democracy is not constantly transgressed by an authoritarian state; when the threat to national sovereignty is lifted and national dignity is respected. In short, when the neoliberal ascendancy in Europe and elsewhere is decisively broken. For fascism has fed on the disasters of neoliberalism.
These conditions will not emerge without a mass popular movement in which the left is actively involved. Yet one of the most depressing features of the crisis has been the weakness of the left – organisationally, electorally and, above all, in the realm of ideas. The left has shown no self-belief, no burning desire to change the world. Even in Greece, where leftwing traditions remain very strong, the rise of Syriza has been more by default than through its own merits. As for the rest, including the Communist party, they have distinguished themselves by endless revolutionary verbiage that barely hides their fear of responsibility and power. People are not fooled by mere words.
To confront the extreme right the left needs to demonstrate in practice that the ascendancy of neoliberalism is not inevitable. For that, however, it must offer a realistic anti-capitalist programme that takes steps in the direction of socialism. Such a programme ought to reconsider immigration and its place in contemporary capitalism. It should also avoid treating supranational bodies, such as the EU and the EMU, as inherently progressive, while rethinking the connection between the nation state and democracy. We now know that sovereign power can be a bulwark against anti-democratic transnational pressures. Above all, the left needs to believe in itself, its ideas and its vision to overthrow capitalism. Perhaps the Greek left can beat such a path for the rest of Europe. Time is getting short.