by Martin Jacques
Since 1989 we have been living in a fool's paradise. The triumphalism about the future that greeted the collapse of communism has proved to be profoundly misplaced. The reason why we should fear the rise of Le Pen is not simply that fascism and an ugly racism are alive, well and in the ascendant in one of the heartlands of Europe, but rather that the world that we now live in is in a corrosive state. Not since the 1930s has the threat of the irrational, of a turn towards barbarism, been so great in the west. It has become an arrogant truism of western life that the evils of the modern world - authoritarianism, ethnic conflict, illiberalism - are coterminous with the developing world. It was telling how some western leaders, including one of our own ministers, in the aftermath of September 11, spoke of the civilised world, and by implication of the uncivilised world, the dark-skinned savages of backward cultures. It is not clear how Le Pen or Berlusconi or Haider fit this world view.
Europe, of course, has always been as much the cradle of barbarism as civilisation, of racism and ethnic cleansing as well as the Renaissance and democracy. Racism and fascism are part of its history and therefore always incipient in its present. Racist parties of the extreme right are in government in Austria, Denmark and Italy. And they are resurgent in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Belgium. But it is, above all, the reasons for their resurgence that give cause for profound concern: they suggest that we are now entering a new Dark Age.
The first factor in this resurgence is the feeble state of the left. The traditional left has more or less collapsed: the French Communist party now polls little more than the British Communist party at its height. European social democracy, especially its New Labour variant, has come to occupy a centre ground where it is no longer easily distinguishable from the centre right. For most of the last century, democratic politics was dominated by the contest between left and right and as such offered a sense of choice. That choice has now evaporated.
The implications of this for democracy have been little considered. But what if the political marketplace that replaces it is precisely that, a range of products which are largely indistinguishable and palpably fail to offer any real alternative to the status quo, no fundamental critique of society, no different vision of the future? Historically this is what the left offered: its very organisational basis - the labour movement - was rooted in principles, which, if not always inimical to capitalism, certainly offered radically different values. New Labour, in contrast, increasingly raises its money from the rich rather than from the unions. It no longer speaks to its own, distinct constituencies - blue-collar workers and the poor - but a nebulous middle England defined by its political promiscuity.
This brings us to the second factor, the decay of democracy. The aspiration of, and ethical claim for, democracy has been as a vehicle for representing the wishes of the entire people. Democracy is not - yet at least - the subject of a frontal assault from fascism, as it was in the 1930s, but rather of a corrosion from within. Democratic politics is increasingly seen as a less and less useful stage for making meaningful choices about society. This is reflected in the declining status of politics and politicians. It also finds expression in declining voter turnout. This, of course, has long been a characteristic of American politics. But in the last general election here, voter turnout was 59%, over 10% less than in any previous election. In the first round of the French presidential election, the turnout was a similarly record low.
The result is that politics is becoming the preserve of a declining proportion of the population, in some cases not much more than half. Those who bother to vote do so because they feel they have a stake in society: those who don't are those who feel they have little stake. The result is predictable: the political agenda is set by the privileged rather than the underprivileged, the range of debate increasingly circumscribed. In such a situation, the political world becomes more and more detached - potentially dangerously so - from the society it purports to represent.