The Hollowing Out of Democracy
Photo by Getty Images/Nikolaev.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to start with a brief reminiscence of a period which is eerily similar to today in many unpleasant respects. I’m thinking of exactly 80 years ago, almost to the day; it happened to be the moment of the first article that I remember having written on political issues. Easy to date: it was right after the fall of Barcelona in February 1939.
The article was about what seemed to be the inexorable spread of fascism over the world. In 1938, Austria had been annexed by Nazi Germany. A few months later, Czechoslovakia was betrayed, placed in the hands of the Nazis at the Munich Conference.
In Spain, one city after another was falling to Franco’s forces. February 1939, Barcelona fell. That was the end of the Spanish Republic. The remarkable popular revolution, anarchist revolution, of 1936, ’37, ’38, had already been crushed by force. It looked as if fascism was going to spread without end.
It’s not exactly what’s happening today, but, if we can borrow Mark Twain’s famous phrase, “History doesn’t repeat but sometimes rhymes” – too many similarities to overlook. When Barcelona fell, there was a huge flood of refugees from Spain. Most went to Mexico, about 40,000. Some went to New York City, established anarchist offices in Union Square, secondhand bookstores down 4th Avenue. That’s where I got my early political education, roaming around that area.
That’s 80 years ago. Now it’s today.
We didn’t know at the time, but the US government was also beginning to think about how the spread of fascism might be virtually unstoppable. They didn’t view it with the same alarm that I did as a 10-year-old. We now know that the attitude of the State Department was rather mixed regarding what the significance of the Nazi movement was. Actually, there was a consul in Berlin, US consul in Berlin, who was sending back pretty mixed comments about the Nazis, suggesting maybe they’re not as bad as everyone says. He stayed there until Pearl Harbor Day, when he was withdrawn – the famous diplomat named George Kennan. Not a bad indication of the mixed attitude towards these developments.
It turns out, couldn’t have known it at the time, but shortly after this, 1939, the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations began to carry out planning about the postwar world, what the postwar world would look like. And in the early years, right about that time, next few years, they assumed that the postwar world would be divided between a German-controlled world, Nazi-controlled world, most of Eurasia, and a US-controlled world, which would include the Western Hemisphere, the former British Empire – which the US would take over – parts of the Far East.
And that would be the shape of the postwar world. Those views, we now know, were maintained until the Russians turned the tide. Stalingrad, 1942–1943, the huge tank battle at Kursk, a little later, made it pretty clear that the Russians would defeat the Nazis. The planning changed. Picture of the postwar world changed, went on to what we’ve seen for the last period since that time. Well, that was 80 years ago.
Today we are not facing the rise of anything like Nazism, but we are facing the spread of what’s sometimes called the ultranationalist, reactionary international, trumpeted openly by its advocates, including Steve Bannon, the impresario of the movement. [He] just had a victory yesterday: the Netanyahu election in Israel solidified the reactionary alliance that’s being established, all of this under the US aegis, run by the triumvirate, the Trump-Pompeo-Bolton triumvirate. I could borrow a phrase from George W. Bush to describe them, but, out of politeness, I won’t.
The Middle East alliance consists of the extreme reactionary states of the region – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt under the most brutal dictatorship of its history, Israel right at the center of it – confronting Iran. [There are] severe threats that we’re facing in Latin America. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil put in power the most extreme, most outrageous of the right-wing ultranationalists who are now plaguing the hemisphere.
Yesterday, Lenín Moreno of Ecuador took a strong step towards joining the far-right alliance by expelling Julian Assange from the embassy. He’s picked up quickly by the UK, [and] will face a very dangerous future unless there’s a significant popular protest. Mexico is one of the rare exceptions in Latin America to these developments. This has happened – in Western Europe, the right-wing parties are growing, some of them very frightening in character.
There is a counter-development. Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, a very significant, important individual, along with Bernie Sanders, has urged the formation of a Progressive International to counter the right-wing international that’s developing. At the level of states, the balance looks overwhelmingly in the wrong direction. But states aren’t the only entities. At the level of people, it’s quite different. And that could make the difference. That means a need to protect the functioning democracies, to enhance them, to make use of the opportunities they provide, for the kinds of activism that have led to significant progress in the past [and that] could save us in the future.
Excerpted from Internationalism or Extinction by Noam Chomsky, Taylor & Francis, 2020.
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