The rise of national socialism: Why Austria’s revolution is not over

It’s been highly amusing to watch the international press struggle to describe Norbert Hofer, the candidate who has just lost, by a tiny handful of votes, the Austrian presidential election. Hofer bitterly opposes immigration and uses nostalgic language about “pan-German” culture, views which place him in the “far-right” category of European politics. At the same time, he and his Freedom Party denounce the “neoliberal” economic consensus and deplore the evils of international capitalism — views that place him in the “far-left” category of European politics.

It’s a confusing mix. Which is why, in order to explain Hofer and his soziale Heimatpartei — social homeland party — I propose to rescue the term “national socialism” from the ashes of the Second World War. By national socialism I don’t mean Hitler, and I’m not talking about the Holocaust. I don’t even mean fascism, although of course we could eventually get there. I’m talking instead about a political philosophy which combines “nationalism” — a strong belief in the significance or even superiority of one’s own ethnic group or nation-state — with “socialism,” the belief that the state should intervene very heavily in the national economy, and maybe in other realms, too.

For the past several decades, in Europe and North America, those ideas have mostly been separate. “Socialists,” in their postwar European incarnation, were almost all internationalists. Marxist socialists believed in the ultimate triumph of the international proletarian dictatorship. Social Democrats believed in the virtues of European integration and cooperation.

Conservatives did speak more often of traditional national virtues, or at least traditional values. But in the Anglo-Saxon world, they usually they attached those ideas to a philosophy of economic liberalism and open borders. On continental Europe, Christian Democrats enthusiastically supported the European Union and its integrated markets.

There were a few holdouts, places like Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. But for most of the past half-century, hard nationalism and state-dominated economics were not linked. No longer: All across Europe, the parties that used to be known as “far right” are rapidly remodeling themselves, adopting policy and language that once would have sounded Marxist. Marine Le Pen’s National Front party now holds annual rallies on May 1, the old international socialists’ holiday. At these events, she also attacks “neoliberal” policies and “globalized elites.” In their place, she wants a “muscular state,” which taxes imports, advocates protectionism and nationalizes foreign companies and banks. Not coincidentally, she also wants to withdraw from both the European Union and NATO.

Nationalization — or rather “re-nationalization” — is not just a buzzword but a government policy in Hungary. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, is a former free marketeer who now waxes lyrical about Hungary’s destiny and attacks the European Union. At the same time, he openly uses punitive taxes and regulations to scare away foreign banks. Poland’s government, now run by the Law and Justice party, also talks about the “re-Polonization” of foreign-owned banks and media, neatly combining nationalist rhetoric and socialist economics into a single phrase.

But then, what used to be considered “left-wing” promises of high social spending are now very common on the new “right.” The UK Independence Party, which wants Britain to withdraw from Europe, along with the Scandinavian nationalist parties — the Danish People’s Party, the Swedish Democrats — also advocate an expanded welfare state, though of course they want to make sure that money is spent only on native-born Brits, Danes and Swedes.

The rise in support for all of these parties is usually attributed to the wave of immigrants coming to Europe from Syria and North Africa. While anti-immigration is an emotional touchstone for all of them, hardly anyone has noticed that national socialist parties are also picking up voters bored by the business-friendly socialism of the center-left and the pragmatism of the center-right. Maybe it’s not surprising: A generation has now passed since the collapse of Soviet Communism. Centralization, nationalization and protectionism all seem like new ideas to people who don’t remember them. Few remember the poverty they created, or the corruption.

Even fewer remember what happened the last time powerful national ideologies were combined with state control of the economy. It’s so difficult to imagine a Europe with borders and trade barriers that you can hardly use the idea as a threat. Warnings don’t work, and history lessons don’t either. After so many decades the past becomes a cliché, a story told too many times to have meaning. Here and now, in the present, people still want emotional reward from politics, not economic management.

This election went against the nationalist socialist wave, but that doesn’t mean those politics will disappear. The revolution was halted in Austria, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.

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