I just finished reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a book that follows the family of the Ambassador to Germany during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. And, as is always the case, I am reading the headlines through a lens carved by (among other things) my current reading list. In this case, the overall effect is chilling.
That is because most people—even intelligent, thoughtful, people—believe that political extremism comes from politically extreme ideas. On its face that can’t be true. Politically extreme ideas are a dime a dozen and are always circulating here, there, and everywhere.
No. Political extremism is the natural and even predictable response of people who are looking for rational, coherent, intelligible answers during economic and social hard times. And since most people under such circumstances don’t have the time or money to run out and get Ph.Ds in all of the fields they would need to master in order to understand what is happening to them, they do the best they can with what they have.
In the 1920s and 1930s what they had was well-funded anti-Communist, Anti-Semitic, anti-Socialist broadsheets vying for the attention of underemployed and unemployed workers and servicemen again much less well funded broadsheets printed by the Communist and Socialist parties. But there was another critical ingredient, and that was the understandable complicity of well meaning middle class and upper class folk who naturally believed that fascism was preferable to either communism or even socialism. In fact, in many ways, Germany was in an even more advantageous position than we are today (at least in the US), because at least the Germans had a large and well organized left wing political movement.
Where Larson’s Garden of Beasts comes into play is in the ways that political extremists take advantage of what “everyone” thinks “everyone knows.” In Germany (and in the US) in the 1920s and 1930s, what “everyone” thought that “everyone knew” was that Germany’s (and America’s) Jews exercised far more political, economic, and social power than their numbers would warrant and that they did so to benefit a worldwide cabal of Jews who were out to enslave the non-Jewish world. They also “knew” that Jews were behind both the world of finance and world Communism. But, until the financial crisis of 1929, when underemployed and unemployed workers and servicemen began to search for answers, what “everyone” thought that “everyone knew” could not be successfully leveraged by political extremists.
Which brings us back to the Greek crisis. Tucked into Rachel Donadio’s New York Times article are the portentous lines:
In recent months, the governments of Ireland and Portugal have been ousted over efforts to cut budgets and benefits. Students have rioted to protest tuition increases in Britain, and young people who feel shut out of their own futures have held nationwide sit-ins in Spain, where the governing Socialists are in trouble in the polls. Right-wing political parties are gaining strength, tapping, in part, the populist rejection of austerity plans.
I find these lines portentous because “everyone” knows that “everyone knows” that it is not the Left or the Socialists whose mismanagement of the economy brought us to this terrible turn. Just as in 1929, “everyone” knows that “everyone knows” it was unregulated investment finance and the unwillingness of political leaders to reign in capital. But, of course, that is not at all what Germans understood in 1929. And evidently it is not what Greeks, or Portuguese, or Spanish, or Irish, or French, or British, or Americans understand today. Rather than reign in capital and make wealth shoulder its fair share of the social contract, what “everyone” knows that “everyone knows” today is that capital needs to be unshackled from the burdens of increased taxes, overregulation, and, above all, “Obama-Care.” Furthermore, what “everyone” knows that “everyone knows” is that our economic woes are exacerbated by the _______________ (you fill in the blank) pouring across our borders, taking our jobs, and stealing our wealth.
Under the extreme circumstances toward which we and the entire industrialized world appear to be careening, under- and unemployed workers and servicepeople are likely to want an explanation for what is happening to them. And they are likely to take what they “know everyone knows” and fit that knowledge into what they are hearing and seeing on FOX, on CNN, on MSNBC, on PBS and run with it.
Level-headed, well-intentioned economists can rattle off the facts, place their special spins on these facts, and reassure us that there is really no cause for alarm. In the mean time, working families are losing their mortgages, health care costs are soaring, and our prison populations are literally exploding beyond their capacity.
Which extreme political movement would you put your money on today? Is this not already the garden of beasts?