In his weekend column in the New York Times Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist who has so thoroughly laid bare the economic causes and effects of what he now calls a full-fledged depression, focuses instead on the political effects of economic depressions.
He warns that it would be a mistake to take comfort from the idea that the current crisis is "not as bad" as the Great Depression of the 1930's, pointing out that unemployment in America and Europe is, like it was in the 1930's, disastrously high. Most ominously, however, he warns that there is a rising threat to democracy and that the threat is a direct result of the economic crisis and how the powers that be deal with it.
Few can argue that the economic downturn in America has generated unprecedented attacks on democracy. From laws that strip collective bargaining rights to efforts to restrict the numbers of voters eligible to vote, it is clear that the right wing aims to weaken groups it sees as opponents. A Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited secret corporate campaign contributions has increased the ability of a small group to buy outright our elected officials. Attacks on immigrants are more than just reminiscent of the racist scapegoating associated with tough times in the past.
Krugman focuses on Europe, however, because, he says, the political situation there is not as well understood.
He notes that the crisis of the euro is more than just economically damaging and that it is killing the "European dream."
People had hoped that a united currency would bring them together, but what has resulted is sharp divisions and even hatred exploited by the right.
There are demands for more and more austerity in Europe and there is practically no government authority pushing for economic growth. Many in southern Europe are angry over what they see as abuse of economic power by Germany.
In Austria a party that has a neo-Nazi as its leader, the Freedom Party, is running even in the polls with the major parties. In Finland the anti-immigrant True Finns party is gaining strength.
In Hungary, a major party (Jobbik) has an openly anti-Roma, anti-Semitic platform and even a paramilitary arm. The governing Fidesz Party is, itself, a right wing party pushing hard for austerity measures. Fidesz is trying to push through a new constitution designed to keep itself in power forever.
It has redrawn district lines that make it impossible for any other party to form a government, positioned itself to appoint judges and has already packed the courts with its own loyal party members. It has turned the publically owned media into party organs and has curbed and even banned independent media altogether. Its proposed constitutional changes would effectively ban leftist parties.
Krugman warns, "Taken together, all this amounts to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule, under a paper-thin veneer of democracy, in the heart of Europe. And it's a sample of what may happen much more widely if the depression continues."
There are at least two lessons for us here.
The first is that as things get worse we cannot expect that people will somehow be automatically motivated to rise up and make things better. Those on the left and elsewhere who say they don't worry about tougher times coming because such times will radicalize people are dead wrong. As things get worse, it is easier for the ruling class and for the right wing, generally, to use the resultant discontent to make its own political gains.
The second is that we must change the failed austerity politics of our country to a politics of economic growth, beginning with massive job creation. It will be next to impossible to achieve this, however, if we don't re-elect President Obama in 2012 and if we don't sweep large numbers of Republicans now on Capitol Hill out of office. If you think failure in 2012 is any kind of option, look at Hungary today.
Photo: Fascist anti-gay protesters hold signs reading "New treatment for homosexuals!" showing a noose and pink triangle, at the gay rights march in downtown Budapest, Hungary, June 18. The pink triangle was one of the Nazi concentration camp badges, used to identify male prisoners who were sent there because of their homosexuality (Balazs Mohai/AP)