Workers against Wall Street

President Obama’s “shock and awe” statism is failing. On the eve of the midterm elections, the US ec

Gary, Indiana

We're hurtling through downtown Gary at about 75 miles an hour but Officer Lilley, at the wheel of our car, remains relaxed. He's telling me languid stories about the AK-47s that the local teenagers carry, about the gangs, the drugs, the overtime. Then the city's "shot spotter" pings an alert on to his laptop, which is wedged right next to the handbrake.

He mutters a call for assistance into his radio and swings the police car on to the forecourt of a gas station where about 30 people are running, pointing, strung out, screaming recriminations. There's been a fight, but the fighters are gone, as is the kid who decided to let off his pistol. Nobody is dead. Everybody is shouting into the face of Officer Lilley, a black cop in a black crowd, who simply drawls soothing phrases back at them.

Eventually seven police cars arrive and the cops fan out to disperse the crowd of onlookers, many of whom they seem to know by name. Two years ago there were times when the city could field only five cars in total on a night shift, but federal dollars have paid for 96 new vehicles and allowed Gary Police to re-employ 11 laid-off officers. This short, sharp exercise in armed social work is possible only because of the fiscal stimulus.

Gary is a city where 84 per cent of the population is black and one-third of the people live in poverty. It is one of the most obvious places on earth where an influx of taxpayer dollars might do some good. It has 3,000 abandoned homes and a decaying infrastructure, and its public finances stand two years away from bankruptcy. Yet what is obvious, amid these wrecked streets and impoverished lives, is how little the stimulus has achieved.

Gary's urban texture - grass and ivy over broken concrete - is testimony to what happens when an economic model fails. In its deserted downtown district, the churches, the concert hall, the theatre, the ballet studio, the Gothic apartments from whose windows steel magnates once surveyed the city's pulsating wealth, stand ruined, unsecured against intruders.

Though atypical of America, Gary's broken landscape is spectacularly typical of what has gone wrong in the country at large. Its meagre progress, two years into the Obama administration, signals the president's failure to solve America's most basic problems and to deliver to the very people whose votes put him in the White House.

The problem for America today is that another economic model has failed: one based on globalisation, cheap credit, home ownership and mass consumption. Six million Americans have fallen below the poverty line since December 2007. The median income has fallen by 4.7 per cent. In the same period, more than 2.5 million homes have been repossessed. And that only compounds the long-term problems America hid beneath the financial euphoria of the boom years - but average real wages have stagnated since the 1990s; the number without health insurance has grown by ten million in a decade and stands at 50 million.

The most basic problem is this: in a system based on credit, the credit system is not functioning. It's easy to spot the malfunction in a city like Gary: I saw one home for sale at $7,900 cash, the scrawled street-corner placard adding, by way of explanation, the word "Foreclosure". The only part of the credit system that does function is the destructive part; the "payday loans" store on Gary's main street is the only thing left with working neon signs. Most of the other shops are closed for good.

With a swollen mass of people unable to borrow, save or spend, the great dynamo of the world economy - American consumption - is sputtering. And the stimulus has not yet managed to restart it.

Eighteen months ago, the mayor of Gary, Rudy Clay, told me that all the city needed was $400m. With that, said the dapper veteran of the civil rights movement, Gary would "fly like an eagle and once again make America proud". In the event, the city was given just $266m - most of that earmarked for education - and for spending not on current costs, but on reorganisation.

Of the $24m Clay applied for to knock down derelict homes, $2m was delivered - and most of the buildings are still standing. It took 18 months for the money to pay for new streetlights to filter through the system. And, with $266m, Gary has managed to create the grand total of 327 jobs. That is more than $800,000 per job.

“We were last in line," Clay complains. "We keep pressing the State of Indiana for more money - to fix our roads, for example - but the problem is they spent all the money. They probably thought, 'Well, Gary voted in large numbers for the president, so the president can take care of them.'" A glance at the city's finances reveals a more complex picture. Its financial controls are archaic, its debts to other agencies high; and its tax base is heavily dependent on one source - a property tax that brings in 80 per cent of Gary's revenue.

In 2008 the Republican-controlled state government of Indiana brought in tax-capping measures that will, by 2012, halve the amount of property tax Gary can collect. While richer, whiter counties surrounding Gary have their own local income taxes, Gary does not - for the simple reason that there is very little income to tax. Within this system, redistribution is impossible unless the state and federal governments make it happen.

But that is where Gary's problems run into the culture war that has gripped America.The governor of Indiana is Mitch Daniels, a fiscal conservative who has made his reputation by balancing the state's books, privatising Indiana's major roads system in the process. Daniels - unlike some other Republican governors - agreed to accept the fiscal stimulus money, but on condition that the state retained control. He then decreed that the stimulus could not be used to fix the balance sheets of near-bankrupt city governments like Gary. Only major, one-off projects would receive federal dollars.

So, in the midst of the largest fiscal stimulus since the Second World War, one of America's poorest cities is being forced to cut taxes and cut spending. By 2012 its entire tax take will not be enough to cover the police, fire and ambulance services. Officer Lilley and his colleagues know that all the problems that fuel the crime - drugs, truancy, poor housing, unemployment - will remain unaddressed.

President Obama's stimulus was formulated with high hopes: two-thirds of the $787bn spent would be delivered not through the Bush-era mechanism of tax cuts, but through the overtly Keynesian channel of public spending. Jared Bernstein and Christina Romer, economists on Obama's transition team, predicted in January 2009 that the stimulus money would "create three to four million jobs" by the end of 2010, 90 per cent of them in the private sector. They projected that unemployment would peak at just 8 per cent in 2009.

The Romer/Bernstein forecast, like much of the Obama stimulus plan, was a triumph of optimism. Unemployment reached 10 per cent a year ago and has not been below 9.5 per cent since, even with the stimulus. Private-sector employment has shrunk. The money has been spent, but the jobs and growth did not follow.

The paucity of achievement is all the more remarkable given that, two months after the Romer/Bernstein report was published, the Federal Reserve was forced to launch its own, much bigger monetary stimulus package, known as quantitative easing (QE). By printing money and using it to buy a mixture of bank and government debt, the Fed pumped $1.75trn into the US economy.

Yet the combined results are poor. Growth is slowing. The threat of deflation is so clear that the Federal Reserve will, on the morrow of the midterm elections, be forced to throw several hundred billions more into QE.

In the housing market, there is already a double dip. Even with mortgage interest rates cut to their lowest ever, the sheer volume of un-sold properties - 1.5 million empty and a further five million trapped in a "shadow" market - has begun to push house prices down again. The banking sector has begun to shudder in turn at the prospect of another round of mortgage losses.

It is this tangible failure of economic strategy that is sapping the energy and credibility of the Obama administration. It has provided the American right with a convincing narrative to unite the plebeian conservative and "coastal elite" strands of Republicanism.

Governor Daniels, a mainstream Republican who is being tipped as the man to run against Obama in 2012, calls Obama's policy "shock and awe statism". But the real shock is how little has been achieved. Statewide, the whole of Indiana has managed to spend $4bn of stimulus money to create 10,000 jobs.

“It's not enough," the governor says, "and I would caution you that while I know the $4bn is real, I cannot say the same about the 10,000 jobs. We just don't know. They [the federal government] don't know."

Nationally, he says, "We've had this perverse outcome in which the private sector has continued to shrink and the public sector has gotten bigger. Frankly, it looks more like a way to take care of favoured constituencies than an economic policy."

So, for the mainstream American right, what explains the failure of the Obama stimulus is "crowding out": it is the size of the state that has prevented the private sector from responding to the crisis with fresh hiring and company start-ups. In addition, consistently large majorities polled by the Pew Research Centre believe that state intervention has benefited the banks and large corporations only - leaving the middle class, the poor and small businesses to rot. Finally, there is a growing fear that the size of the budget deficit will drag the United States into penury. Daniels tells me that the country faces a "survival-level threat".

It is in this context that the narrative of the Tea Party movement has emerged. And you have only to travel a hundred kilometres east of Gary, along the patched-up private motorways of Indiana, to hear it in full voice.

The hall is swaying to the tune of "God Bless the USA" - a song for which everyone except the journalists stands up, many clenching fists against chests. The crowd is 99 per cent white and 100 per cent Christian. Of those to whom I speak during the interval, several believe that the president is neither American nor Christian. One is selling a set of playing cards depicting Obama as a "Kenyan-born, lying, arrogant Muslim communist that hates America".

What the Tea Party objects to is the president's policies of state intervention. What it adds to conventional fiscal conservatism is the idea that all state intervention into economic life is immoral, un-Christian and unconstitutional. The plebeian right is convinced that a city like Gary neither deserves stimulus money nor can use it to any good effect.

Jackie Walorski, a Republican who sits in the Indiana legislature and is standing for the US House of Representatives on 2 November, tells me: "We are watching a freight train of spending in this country. Americans don't live that way. We're the land of capitalism; we're not the land of taking people's public tax money and throwing it into a concept that isn't proven, that has not produced jobs."

Does she begrudge the money spent in Gary? Would she have blocked the cash for schools, more police and police vehicles?

“It's not a question of begrudging," says Wal­orski, a 47-year-old former TV journalist. "Just because it's gone to education, police and fire doesn't mean the money has done anything in those areas. That's not what the key is in this country. You can continue to write cheques but recovery comes from private-sector jobs and holding a line on spending."

What is sapping the energy of Democratic Party supporters, even in a place like Gary, is that if you strip Walorski's words of all the rhetoric, economically they ring true. America's governance system, lacking the basic capacity, and in some places the will, to spend the money, looks ill suited to delivering maximum bang for 787 billion bucks.

But the rhetoric itself has material impact, and way beyond the worried Christian faces assembled to hear it. It is a rhetoric that - intentionally or otherwise - identifies the recipients of state spending as the enemies of the American constitution. From Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, that means the public sector, migrants and the African-American poor.

When Walorski takes the stage at a Tea Party rally in the small rural town of Angola, Indiana as warm-up act for the Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, she points to a giant US flag behind her and whips the audience to its feet with the warning that they have just days "to fight for who we are in America".

She continues: "If we don't fight for freedom, liberty, individual destiny, they are redefining this country out from underneath us. The battle we're facing is to defend this flag on our turf, our soil. When our soldiers came out of the boats in Normandy they literally walked over the bodies of other soldiers to fight for our freedom. The battle we face today, the ideological war that we're fighting, is for standing up for a constitution. The land of the free and the home of the brave is under assault today."

It is worth unpacking this statement. In the literal text, Obama and the Democrat-voting Congress are the "they" Walorski refers to. But America's airwaves are alive with the angry voices of enraged white Christians, channelled towards coherence by the right-wing commentators. No one on the stage in Indiana needs to assert that Obama is "a racist" with “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture" - because Beck already said so on TV, on 28 July 2009.

Back in Gary, for the black community activists trying to hold things together, it feels as if the word "they" has another meaning.

“When you turn on the TV and hear all this anger, all this vitriol," says Ben Clement, who helps run a community theatre group for teenagers, "well, it's culture-based, race-based, and it's frightening. And it shows that there's a disconnect - it's almost like we're living on two separate planets."

Clement, like many Obama-supporting black professionals, rues the complacency of a generation that has drifted out of activism. "Our parents went through the civil rights movement, but for our generation it's been a time of rest, where we didn't think those were going to be issues. Now, when I see Obama vilified, my stomach tightens up, because he is the best of us, the best of what we have to offer. If they feel like that about him - how would they treat me?"

This is the real culture war - an artillery battle of words in which the two sides never meet.

It has blindsided America's political commentators. The polling organisations record no perceptible increase in the numbers of extreme right- and left-wing views. But distrust and fear are tangible once you get where the American media dare not venture - into the honest and considered thoughts of ordinary people.

So, where does the battle go after 2 November? Economists on the Keynesian left of the Democratic Party are now clamouring for a further fiscal stimulus as they frantically try to recover ground in the ideological war they have essentially lost. Judging by the polling on all possible outcomes, the Congressional arithmetic makes another fiscal stimulus impossible. And even if it were possible, it is difficult to see how a second stimulus could overcome the institutional problems that Gary typifies.

Over at the Federal Reserve, the chairman, Ben Bernanke, is inching towards a further round of quantitative easing. In September, he conceded that even if the Fed did opt for a second round of quantitative easing, the impact of this might be softened: though central bankers have no way of knowing how much increased demand they get from QE, they suspect it works best as an anti-panic measure, not as an additional boost. Once "QE2" is begun, the Fed has in effect fired the last bullet in the clip. It may signal the start of a unique period of policy stasis in which all conventional options have been used up.

One route out would be through a trade war and dollar devaluation - a route as popular among the Democratic grass roots as it is among the Tea Party activists.

Back in Indiana, Walorski swaps insults with the Democratic incumbent, Representative Joe Donnelly, whose support for the stimulus, she claims, has "exported jobs to China". Meanwhile, in the union hall of Local 1066, which represents employees of US Steel Corp in Gary, workers are calling for the government to impose tough trade sanctions against Chinese steel imports.

But, for now, the Obama administration is sticking to the economic doctrines that formed the shared belief set of both parties since the 1990s: globalisation and a strong dollar. Even as Bernanke's promise of further QE caused the dollar to slide against other currencies, the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, took to the airwaves to promote keeping the dollar strong. "It is very important," he said, "for people to understand that the United States of America and no country around the world can devalue its way to prosperity . . . It is not a viable, feasible strategy and we will not engage in it."

Another route out is the one offered by Governor Daniels: a new, national, one-year fiscal stimulus of between $400bn and $800bn, including suspension of payroll taxes, in return for equivalent cuts in state spending and a bonfire of business regulations. Though fiscally neutral, a tax cut on this scale could put money where neither state spending nor money printing has yet managed to put it - into the pockets of American consumers.

Yet the problem remains: without restarting the credit market, nothing can sustain growth. There needs to be some kind of defibrillating shock. The American patient, with all its problems of obesity and fast food, has to have its heart restarted before the rehab and the statins can get to work.

For two years, America's political cycle and its economic crisis have been parallel stories, the one played out on brash television shouting shows, the other handled by the super-brained east coast policy elite in the privacy of summits and retreats. After the midterm elections, the two cycles will collide. Either the Obama administration will find a new kind of circuit breaker for the economy, or America will face stagnant growth, deflation and the possibility of a further banking crisis.

In Gary, the people know what they want the president to do: to break with Wall Street, ditch the doctrine of free trade, end foreclosures and deliver jobs. There is, despite the political chasm between the union guys and the Tea Party activists, a parallel desire for politicians to break with the lobbying industry and speak for the people. "He [Obama] has to drive the agenda," says Steve Dunn, a steelworker. "If you ever listen to a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it's basically you against me; it's the working class against Wall Street. And that's the way things are today - but I don't hear that from President Obama."

The irony of American politics, on the eve of the midterms, is that if anybody owns the narrative of "workers against Wall Street", it is the ultra-conservative, free-market right.

Paul Mason is the economics editor of BBC Newsnight. His reports from the US can be seen at bbc.co.uk/paulmason. A revised edition of his book "Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed" (Verso, £8.99) is out now.

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism