The new authoritarianism sweeping through liberal democracies increasingly justifies parallels with the 1930s.
Now, like then, electorates face multiple insecurities: a lack of decent work, crumbling welfare systems, widening inequalities and rapidly changing migration patterns.
And now, like then, there is little faith in the capacity of governments to address those issues, seeing them commonly as ‘elites’ content to trust in the creative destruction of the market or the ability of communities to sustain social solidarities even as their shifting populations wax and wane. This enervation has left a void into which the nationalist right has stepped with crude agendas for economic protectionism and closed borders.
But a closer study of that fateful pre-war decade suggests opportunities as well as dangers. The turbulent years in which fascism flourished also gave shape and momentum to the political ideology that went on to underpin the prosperous and peaceful post-war era: social democracy. Understanding how social democracy emerged, and why it proved successful, can help progressives meet today’s challenges.
Fascism and social democracy are usually considered radically different ideologies, but both emerged from a small circle of socialist intellectuals attempting to respond to the unsettled social conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a sense, fascism is social democracy’s dark twin.