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Keith Rankin's Thursday Column - Boy Joerg

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column
Boy Joerg
10 February 2000

Democrats everywhere should be concerned about the recent events in Austria. It is not so much that the popular governor of Carinthia has led his Nazi-sympathising Freedom Party into government. Like Steve Maharey's comments on the future of Christine Rankin, Joerg Haider's past rhetoric may be just that; rhetoric, the rhetoric of opposition.

Like Winston Peters, who campaigned against immigration in New Zealand in 1996, Haider has become a problem in large part because the media have given him more attention than he deserves. Unlike Winston Peters, Haider has been quite undemanding, accepting a very junior role in Government. In Vienna, Joerg looks like a naughty boy amongst boring old men.

Rather than over-reacting to Haider's innocent praising of Hitler's full-employment policies, we should be concerned about: (i) why increasing numbers of European voters are voting for racist parties, (ii) why parties to the left of the mildly-right-wing OVP (Peoples Party) have not formed a new coalition of the centre, and (iii) about the anti-democratic approach of those seeking to suppress the accession of this neo-nazi nonentity.

Some like to compare neo-nazism in modern Europe with the rise to power of Hitler's National Socialist Party in Germany in 1933. So it's useful to reflect on what happened in the 1930s. The Nazis gained power and democracy disappeared; two events, not one. Certainly the Nazis had no respect for democracy. But they were not the only ones. The Great Depression of 1930-32 (and not, as many suppose, the hyperinflation of 1922-23) created a political climate in which people increasingly looked to extremist counter-democratic solutions on both the left and on the right. Economic failure had allowed democracy to fall into disrepute.

Hitler's rise was a symptom (much more than a cause) of a widespread loss of commitment to democracy. Thanks in large part to Hitler, we know now that, no matter how difficult democracy might be, no matter how much we claim to despise our elected politicians, the cost of giving up on democracy is many times greater.

Haider's rise is different from Hitler's. It's an expression of democracy - albeit of that variety known as "populism" that is distasteful to the bourgeoisie. It is not a rejection of people power. The present threat to democracy in Europe comes from those who wish to suppress the right. This threat to democracy is the kind of reverse McCarthyism that says persons who can be labelled "fascist" should lose their rights of political participation.

The antidemocratic (indeed snobbish) attitude of the European political establishment today is driving increasing numbers of people into Haider's neo-nazi camp. Some recent opinion polls suggest that the Freedom Party could now win an election outright.

Austria's problems are not great. Austrians, like most of the rest of us however, are uneasy about globalisation. The globalisation of labour markets - made visible by immigration - does create insecurities. Fears of the globalisation of labour are as legitimate as fears about the globalisation of capital. It is inevitable that some persons running for political office will play upon such fears. Any national or regional recession can easily be attributed to immigration. Just read New Zealand's newspapers in 1927 and 1928. We gave the Aussie immigrants a hard time then.

The real problem is a lack of alternative analysis about the causes of economic insecurity. The left are at least as bad as the right at attributing economic dislocation to scapegoats. Demonisation serves as a simple-minded substitute for analysis and vision.

It should not be difficult for the left to paint a positive vision of the phenomenon of "jobless growth" which has characterised recent western European development. All that's required is a recognition that the labour market is not the only channel through which national income can be shared. (Under the 1991 Employment Contracts Act, New Zealand experienced the opposite of jobless growth; plenty of McJobs and virtually no productivity growth.)

I attended the conference of the Basic Income European Network (BIEN) in Vienna in 1996. It was a great experience in a great city. Vienna, only 50% larger than Auckland, is an affluent city with an excellent and well-utilised public transport system.

(I also travelled through Carinthia in 1984. While the province looked prosperous on the surface, it's probably fair to say that Haider's powerbase faces the same kinds of problems as Southland. Further, provincial decline could be linked, in the minds of the local population, to Austria's loss to Italy in 1918 of the nearby port city of Trieste.)

The problem with the European left that became apparent at the BIEN conference is that northern and central European societies are so culturally committed to the work ethic (meaning, in practice, the paid employment ethic) that they cannot envisage a system of income distribution that includes unconditional entitlements. Solutions like basic income have great difficulty in penetrating the labourist Social Democratic and Christian Democratic cultures of north and central Europe. Austria's greatest post-war political economist (Linz emeritus professor Kurt Rothschild) noted at BIEN that the prevailing culture refuses to accept that modern economic growth has disproved the tired adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch". An important part of the reason for this lack of imagination, Rothschild argued, is our increasing ignorance of history.

The rise of Joerg Haider is in part a consequence of the neglect of the study of history. After all, Haider's offensive statements have in the main reflected his and his supporters' limited knowledge of European history.

The problem in Austria is, superficially, a problem of immigrants taking locals' jobs and otherwise competing for Austrian resources. The real problem is the failure of non-right political groupings to ignite Austrians' imaginations. The left needs to counter the right with ideas and visions that address their insecurity about jobless growth, the concentration of wealth and globalisation. It makes no sense to get into a mindset (as New Zealand did in 1981) whereby half the nation's population demonises the other half, and vice versa. The left in Europe has a "back to the future" mindset; a mindset which is not entirely absent from the left in New Zealand. The left opposes rather than proposes. It opposes the political symptoms of economic changes that it has no analysis for. The rise of neo-nazism in Austria is a consequence of western intellectual bankruptcy.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

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