The enemies of the people

For every political problem, there is a fitting quotation from Winston Churchill, the prime minister who stood at Britain’s helm, steering the country in the roughest of seas, flying the banner of dignity against Nazi Germany. During his exceedingly long political career, which spanned nearly six decades, Churchill communicated with his voters with wit, persuasion and unmatched irony. He is quoted as saying that “the problem of our time is that men don't want to be useful, but important”. The statement still rings true today, eighty years after World War II broke out.

In several ways, today’s circumstances in Catalonia and Europe are very different from those around that time in the 20th century because technology has speeded up the pace of things, bringing about unimaginable changes. The first such change concerns news outlets and the way information travels across the globe almost instantaneously. I wonder if the British statesman would have withstood the level of scrutiny which today’s political leaders are subjected to. It is not unthinkable to believe that Churchill’s leadership skills would have been questioned owing to his eccentric habits, bouts of rage and fondness of whisky.

However, while our world has changed and yesterday’s world is long gone, it is equally true that we share some disturbing social symptoms and that the classics had already grasped the nature of humankind.

The discredit of today’s politics and our anxiety about the future are reminiscent of the dark times in history. Together they facilitate a discourse of resentment which authoritarian types take advantage of, promising to mend the most complex social ills with just one gulp of their bitter snake oil.

We have in common the discredit of the political leadership, worsened by the mismanagement of the economy’s downturn both in Europe and the US. Confidence in an environment where management and complexity are outshone by grand messages that fuel the worst kind of bigotry has been undermined by the breadth of the recession and the people’s dramatic struggle to put it behind them, compounded by corruption, which acts as a woodworm infestation.

If violence was an omnipresent asset eighty years ago, so was the takeover of institutions by democratic means in order to take them apart. Today we could mention the case of Hungary and the unravelling of a system that is edging towards a single-party regime. Unfortunately, solid democracies —such as the US and the UK— that played a key role in the defeat of fascism and Nazism are also showing signs of decay.

This week PM Boris Johnson managed to obtain the longest prorogation of parliament since 1945 by means of a ploy that has been used only four times in four centuries. Johnson, who became prime minister following an in-party fluke prompted by a few hundred tories, has taken advantage of the parliamentarians’ loss of prestige —with numerous scandals involving cash payments, drugs and sex in Westminster, as well as their gulf with “the people”— to stage a coup against democracy. In fact, Johnson is using the lawmakers’ lack of representation to present himself as an outsider, as if he were not the born-and-bred member of the establishment that he is. Up to nineteen UK prime ministers, including Johnson himself, were educated at Eton College. In 2017 only 32 per cent of Britain’s MPs were women and just 8 per cent belonged to a minority group.

Johnson’s reckless ploy to suspend Parliament aims to spare himself the democratic inconvenience that stems from pact, accountability and persuasion in the final stages of the Brexit talks. But there is more to it: it shows there is a dangerous disconnect between the people and Parliament. Like democracy’s worst enemies, Johnson is forever trying to put down his political opponents and the institutions, as he lies to the public about the consequences of a hard Brexit and the UK’s contingency plans, which he has described as “colossal, extensive and fantastic” (even if he is unable to provide any specifics). Excessive, grandiose rhetoric and bragging are part and parcel of populism, whether in American, Britain, Italy or Spain. In the name of the people, Johnson might lead the British down the road to ruin.

Our front page today features a poster by Karl Geiss, The Worker Under the Swastika State, a work commissioned by Germany’s SPD in 1932. Democracy is fragile and Europe knows that preserving it is a permanent struggle. That is why ARA’s dossier pays tribute to the resistance fighters who fought fascism and Nazism, and exposed the true enemies of the people, no matter the consequences.