A decade of European decay now haunts its centrists
In the Austrian town of Branau am Inn there sits a little stone plaque.
This inelegant, misshapen plaque would be almost unnoticeable if not for the significance of the old house outside which it stands, and the words etched into to it; "For peace, freedom and democracy… Never again fascism… Millions dead remind us".
This house is the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, and the broken stone upon which these words are etched comes from the Nazi's Mauthausen concentration camp, which was based outside Hitler's hometown of Linz and where as many as 320,000 people were industrially murdered.
The plaque ought to serve as an ominous warning to Austrians about the dangers of fascism brewing within their country, so you'd think it'd be a major shock to the Austrian society that a fascist, Norbert Hofer, managed to only narrowly lose the recent presidential election.
Hofer was the candidate for the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), which was founded by a former Nazi minister and officer in the SS.
The FPO is very much like France's Front National, adhering to the model of swapping jackboots for suits and dropping, or at least downplaying and concealing, antisemitism in favour of brazenly vicious Islamophobia and racist anti-immigration stances, mixed with the usual Euroscepticism of this new fascist and right-wing populist wave.
Though Hofer has been presented as the "moderate" face of the FPO, he has said that "Islam has no place" in his homeland, despite Muslims comprising at least 7 percent of the Austrian population. Hofer also vowed to use his presidential powers to dissolve any government that did not take a hard stand on immigration.
Once again, in the heart of supposedly "civilised Europe", we see the normalisation of the politics of racial and ethno-religious hatred and the language of racial and national "cleanliness" (Hofer's official slogan envisioned an "unspoilt" Austria) becoming electorally acceptable.
|The 1990s and 2000s have been dominated by politics based more on the superficiality of image and a contempt for the intelligence of the voters|
Without a hint of hyperbole, in Hofer and the FPO you have the same politics that led to the industrial extermination of hundreds of thousands of people in Austria at Mauthausen made new.
However, in Austria the centre at least for now held firm against fascism, but over the border in Italy, the centre was veritably cracked open. Italy's centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was forced to resign after losing a referendum on amendments to Italy's constitution.
Superficially, the vote was about reforms to Italy's legislative system, which is unique in Europe. Italy's parliamentary system gives equal power to both its upper and lower chambers, which was, ironically, first conceived as a means to ensure that elected officials remained democratically accountable due to the legacy of fascism and the threat of totalitarian communism.
Over the years, the system couldn't keep up with the pace of legislation required to meet the needs of modern social change in Italy. To the reformers, this referendum was about bringing Italy's parliament into line with most other European democracies, with the lower chamber as the main legislative body.
However, the Italian opposition, dominated by a parade of Eurosceptic populists and hard-to-far rightists, immediately sought to depict the reforms as not just an authoritarian assault on democracy by Renzi, but one engineered by the hated European Union.
|According to the Italian fact-checking site Pagella Politica, over half the news stories shared in Italy on social media before the referendum vote were fake ones|
In this spirit, one of the leading forces within the opposition to the reforms was the far-right Lega Nord, whose leader Matteo Salvini said he would vote against the amendments because he doesn't want a constitution "where everything is decided by Rome or, even worse, Brussels". Salvini added that should the reforms pass, Italians would be left as "slaves of Europe".
This wasn't helped by the over-confident Renzi beginning the campaign by saying he would resign should the reforms fail to pass. He handed his right-wing opponents a fantastic opportunity to make the referendum a referendum on him, and stir up the same post-fact, anti-immigrant and nativist anguish that determined both the Brexit victory and Trump’s presidential triumph.
The largest political force opposing the reforms was the Five Star Movement (M5S), a catch-all populist party that claims to be neither left nor right, but whose ideology is not difficult to discern from the fact that its steeped in the same Eurosceptic mythologies of the far-right.
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The M5S, unlike the FPO, Front National or Lega Nord, is not rooted in neo-Nazism or traditional fascism, but is rather proudly obscurantist. It has monopolised the allegedly "neutral" issues of corruption and environmentalism in order to shield its true ideology from scrutiny, but sometimes the mask slips.
While the party is generally opposed to immigration, it has largely avoided using the same rhetoric as Italy's far-right when it comes to this issue, until last year when Grillo referred to immigrants and refugees as "rats" and "rubbish" who were on the verge of swamping Rome.
Its role in the referendum seemed to be - similar to the Trump movement - to campaign not so much on its own basis, but rather in its own reality, with the movement using its network of media sites to launch a massive misinformation campaign – twisting the minds of voters who have, for the past few years, come to see it as a purveyor of truth in contrast to the malfeasant government.
In fact, according to the Italian fact-checking site Pagella Politica, over half the news stories shared in Italy on social media before the referendum vote were fake ones, including a particularly popular one claiming that a victory for Renzi's reforms would lead to the privatisation of Italy's schools.
This is the "post-fact" mentality that has been utilised so well by the extreme right to attack the centre, but it is rooted in the centre itself. The "dark arts" of spin have always been used by politicians, but the 1990s and 2000s have been dominated by politics based more on the superficiality of image and a contempt for the intelligence of the voters, one where the media and politicians are often much too close.
|One of the most chilling reactions to the defeat of Renzi's reforms came from Lega Nord's Salvini, who tweeted 'Viva Trump, viva Putin, via la Le Pen, via la Lega'|
There was no better example of this than the malfeasance of the Iraq war and its dodgy dossiers and non-existent WMDs, as well as waves of sleaze involving both the media and politicians, such as the phone hacking scandal and the abuse of parliamentary expenses.
Countries find themselves in a situation where the centre has been eroded by the decay caused by its own excesses. But this does not mean that there is nothing worth defending about the centre in the face of an insurgent fascism and right-wing authoritarian populism. Rather, the threat is not just from within, and it is not isolated.
One of the most chilling reactions to the defeat of Renzi's reforms came from Lega Nord's Salvini, who tweeted "Viva Trump, viva Putin, via la Le Pen, via la Lega".
Every far-right force in Europe celebrated the result as a victory for their agenda, while all these far-right forces maintain close ties with Putin's Russia, which has been allowed to aid Assad's fascism to crush the democratic revolution in Syria, thus making many more refugees for his comrades in the European far-right to exploit.
For progressives, the triumph of the centre-left in Austria against fascism provides a small ray of hope. But it seems likely that the FPO will get another chance. For the first time since the 1930s, the threats to liberal democracy in Europe appear to outweigh and outclass their defenders, who struggle to stand up for progress in the face of its most ravening antithesis.
Marine Le Pen will face in the upcoming election not a defender of progressivism but a centre-right demagogue who will catastrophically try to ape her fascism in order to appease it.
We have a Europe that has for over a decade allowed Islamophobia to become acceptable, and that has allowed the logics of the far right to become normalised. Centrists have to face up to the seeds that they planted, but which now threaten their very existence - either that, or they acquiesce to it.
Liberal democracy isn't on the verge of failing, but these events, often the culmination of things that bubble away under the surface, are akin to small cracks in the foundation. When it comes down, as with the collapse of the USSR, it might appear as lightning quick.
The West certainly doesn't seem up to saving itself.
Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.