Neo-fascist and authoritarian trends in Europe are alarming, says Presbyterian World Mission area coordinator

Luciano Kovacs delivers a paper to the Belarus, Ukraine, Russia Mission Network’s annual meeting

by Luciano Kovacs, Presbyterian World Mission| Special to Presbyterian News Service

A map of Europe provided by VectorStock

Editor’s note: Luciano Kovacs, World Mission’s Area Coordinator for the Middle East and Europe, delivered a paper Friday to the Belarus, Ukraine, Russia Mission Network, meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin. What follows is a version of Kovacs’ paper edited for brevity.

Amidst so many tragedies occurring in the world, including the ongoing war and massacres in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear war, fleeing refugees continuing to die in the Mediterranean Sea, the repression of Iranian protesters against the Ayatollah’s regime, the worsening of the situation in Palestine under a military occupation now an Apartheid system under Israeli control, three events have really struck a chord with me in recent days:

  • The images of Russian people who could be drafted for Putin’s war against Ukraine fleeing the country, amassing at Russia’s borders with other nations such as Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland, or fleeing to non-bordering countries such as Serbia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates
  • The victory of the right-wing coalition in Sweden, which includes Sweden Democrats, a far-right party founded in the 1980s by neo-Nazis
  • The victory of the right-wing coalition in Italy, headed by the Brothers of Italy Party, which has its roots in the post-WW2 neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

The elections in Sweden and Italy are a worrying precedent in Western Europe, especially with the already existing illiberal democracies in Poland and Hungary, whose authoritarian regimes continue to pass repressive policies, regardless of the opposition in the European Union Commission and Parliament. This disturbing precedent comes at a time when the continent has not yet finalized its political unification process and is operating within weak structures. It is also a time of economic and social upheaval, a devastating war and political instability.

These authoritarian trends in Europe mirror what the late Italian author Umberto Eco described in his 1995 essay in the New York Review of Books titled “Ur-fascism,” which led to a book published in Italy with the title of “Eternal Fascism.” Eco claimed that it is unlikely that the 20th century form of fascism will repeat itself exactly — this year of the 100th anniversary of the march on Rome which handed power to Mussolini for two decades — but it is extremely troubling to see elements of Eco’s eternal fascism emerge.

Eco identified 14 elements of eternal fascism, including:

  • The cult of tradition
  • Reactionary nationalism with imperial tinges
  • The refusal of modernity and rationalism
  • Action with no vacillation
  • Racism and homogeneity

Today, several of these characteristics are found in the rhetoric and policies advanced by Putin’s regime as well as in the rhetoric of parties that somewhat align with Russia.

An important question today is: How is it possible that parties/movements that were on the fringes of mainstream politics have recently become the first- or second-most popular party? Although each county is different, there are many common threads, which have also been visible in the United States in the years that led to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and the political polarization we continue to experience.

The economic crisis that began in 2008 has contributed greatly to the rise of neo-fascist groups. The crisis was worsened by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, affecting a lot of people. It has meant the impoverishment of larger swaths of Western societies, the shrinking of the middle class, the casualization of the workforce and rampant unemployment. All this is in addition to the glorification of extreme individualism, exasperated consumerism, and the desire for personal gain as opposed to collective welfare and general well-being.

In this crisis, fragmented interests are an overarching feature. We have seen systems and political movements that have, for instance, pit workers against migrants, an apparent promotion of class warfare from above. But there is another and more significant reason for this shift.

We live in very complex and multifaceted societies which are not easy to govern. Multinational corporations have become more powerful than governments; they have accumulated unimaginable amounts of money while more and more people have a hard time putting food on their table and pay their bills. When people are consumers rather than citizens, it is easier to promote ignorance and political dissatisfaction or political manipulation resulting in low turnout at the polls.

What is clear is that without serious citizen intervention, there is a very grim future ahead for Europe. Even if neo-fascist movements are not successful in taking power, they are already successful because they have shifted the political discourse and have legitimized what was unthinkable only a few years ago. The trend is not only for the neo-fascist movements to be blatantly racist, misogynist and homophobic, but it has become their bread and butter. Incidentally, just because Italy will have a woman prime minister, doesn’t mean she’s a feminist.

There are now a few telling features that have come to light:

  • Flirting with unscientific and anti-science untruths to attract those who believe in conspiracy theories
  • Vying for government posts while maintaining an anti-establishment posture, regardless of how long they have been part of it
  • Demonizing the other to manipulate the sentiments of those who are struggling financially and need a cult to blame.

There is no easy recipe to counter such phenomena and reverse the tendency that is bringing Europe to the brink of another dark age. Yet, it is clear to me that until the worldwide economic system is fully reformed, and until the ongoing capitalist crisis will continue to plunge people into poverty and despair, it will be difficult to change the course of history. Those of us who were young in the 1990s and fought for a just global economy always knew that neoliberalism would take us down a dangerous path.

Luciano Kovacs

Unless we defeat neoliberalism, unless we curb the power of multinational corporations, unless we restore labor rights, unless we tax the ultra-rich and create socially just systems, we are not going to change the course of the approaching train wreck.

Neoliberalism must be substituted with sound policies that attend to economic, social, gender and civil rights. In this ongoing economic crisis generated by neoliberal policies and illusive capitalism forced on people by the dictatorship of uncontrolled markets, social justice is the only way forward. Justice is the antidote to neo-fascism as well.

The growth of a country and of our planet should be measured according to sustainable practices and policies, including the real happiness of people. Not the happiness of accumulating money, but happiness given by a true quality of life. And a true quality of life means a decent living wage for everyone, good public services, free education for all, health care for all, clean water and air, economic policies that promote the common good rather than on individuals amassing wealth, and an economy recognizing that our planet’s resources are finite meaning that we need to promote renewable energy.

Only a different paradigm of how we live together on this planet will defeat the eternal crisis leading to eternal fascism.

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