Things are happening with machine-gun rapidity: Brexit, the Turkish coup, massacres in France, the siege of Aleppo, the nomination of Donald Trump. From the United States to France to post-Brexit Britain, the high levels of public racism and xenophobia, reflected now in the outpourings of politicians with double-digit poll ratings, have got people asking: Is it a rerun of the 1930s?
On the face of it, the similarities are real. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) parallels its panicked decision to quit the gold standard in September 1931 — the first major country to quit the global economic system. Labour’s incipient split mirrors the one that left the party out of power for 14 years. And of course the economic background — a depression and a banking crisis — has echoes in the present situation. But a proper study of the 1930s reveals our situation today to be better and more salvageable in many ways, although in one respect worse.
Following the Wall Street crash of 1929, the economic downturn took hold in 1931, with the failure of banks on both sides of the Atlantic, the imposition of austerity measures on already-weak economies, the resort to tariffs, currency blocks and economic nationalism. The fact that elites advocated mass unemployment, as a downward pressure on wages, created the firewood; overtly militarised and genocidal fascist groups lit the spark. It took just two years from Hitler’s first electoral breakthrough in 1930 for the Nazi party to score 37 per cent in an election .
Then you get the million-strong far-right demonstration in Paris in 1934; the rising of the Asturian miners in Spain, put down by the army; German rearmament beginning in 1935. The Spanish civil war starts in 1936 — while, in the same year, workers in both France and the US stage mass occupations of factories, and Stalin begins the great purge. It is here that the 30s take their essential shape: The surrender of democracy, the certainty of war — and the march to mass civilian death.
For us today, the single biggest positive difference is that we start from a globalised world economy. We begin from a qualitatively more interdependent economic system, in which autarky is widely understood - even by politicians who would like to try it — as suicide. It was this realisation that forced the disoriented elites at the London and Cannes G20 conferences in 2009 and 2011 to coordinate extraordinary stimulus measures to stave off a 1930s-style breakdown.
Those, myself included, who paced around the edges of these events declaring the action inadequate should admit — despite the inadequacy — that they acted in the right spirit. The elite rejected “pro-cyclical” economics of the kind that plunged the US into depression and Germany into fascism. Everywhere, that is, except Europe - and, even in Europe, far-right extremism has been held at bay until now. The problem is, politically, we have in one sense gone beyond the 1930s. Force yourself to listen to the subtexts of social media: The organised hatred against black female actor Leslie Jones, the anonymous racism and misogyny, the habitual fusion of anti-left and anti-Islam hate.
Force yourself — maybe just once — to watch what some people are watching every day: Blacks being murdered by US police; Syrian children blown to pieces by President Bashar Al Assad, or Russia or the US Air Force; bloggers crucified in public by Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), the mangled bodies of French party-goers on the Nice seafront. When Franco’s troops took Badajoz and put 2,000 of its inhabitants against the wall in the early days of the Spanish civil war, the Wehrmacht’s military observer was so disgusted that he advised German troops should never be allowed to serve alongside Franco’s lest they become “brutalised”.
Today, an entire generation of humanity has been brutalised — whether it experiences mass slaughter, rape and torture first-hand, or whether it simply sees the pictures and hears the stories. If you read any memoir from the 1930s and the war years, there is almost always a moment of realisation: What a cadaver looks like; that prisoners can be shot; that the Geneva conventions may be flouted. Sadly, in sheer brutality, we are past the 1930s — and in the struggle between governments and civilian populations the Geneva conventions do not apply. The worst thing about the present — and millions of people feel it — is the momentum towards catharsis. It is impossible to imagine everything dying back to a boring stasis.
When you watch Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s men marching life-long democratic journalists to jails, it becomes possible to imagine these things happening in other nominal democracies. On the face of it, we have two things the 1930s lacked. We have billions of educated and literate brains on the planet; and we have the concept of universal and inalienable human rights. When, at the start of this unrest, I read Stephane Hessel’s Indignez Vous! (Time for Outrage) — one of the pamphlets that inspired the Occupy protests — I wondered why he dwelt so long on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Hessel had been a French resistance fighter and helped write the 1948 declaration. In an address to the youth of the tent camps in 2008, he spends several long paragraphs explaining why they fought so hard for the word “universal” and not “international”: “That is how to forestall the argument for full sovereignty that a state likes to make when it is carrying out crimes against humanity on its soil.”
Hessel’s generation understood that — even if it were all a figleaf for US hegemony — a global and universal system of human rights would leave a lasting legacy. Today, when a journalist or NGO worker stumbles on the scene of a massacre, they think — if they have been trained right — about evidence-gathering for a court first, the sensational scoop second.
So, no. This is not the 1930s with drones and trolls. We have — and must defend — a resilient global system. One glance at an uncensored social media timeline will tell you what happens if we let go of that.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Paul Mason is a writer and broadcaster on economics and social justice.