Conventional political certainties are being swept away. Parties that believed they had massive and secure support bases are suddenly losing them.
The “centre” of politics is falling apart. Deep anger at the grinding economic crisis, stagnant or collapsing living standards, and an undemocratic and unaccountable political elite is bursting to the surface in unpredictable ways.
The Financial Times newspaper wrote after Donald Trump’s victory, “The American people have spoken—or perhaps shouted —and nothing is likely to be the same again. The mere fact of Mr Trump’s victory puts him halfway towards obliterating an establishment that was largely united in revulsion at his candidacy.
“Every pollster in the land misread the US public. By electing a man whom voters knew to be disrespectful of US constitutional niceties, America has dispatched the electoral equivalent of a suicide bomber to Washington. Mr Trump’s mandate is to blow up the system.”
More pithily the French ambassador to the US tweeted, “Everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes.”
The question is whether the fury at big business and the political elite is turned leftwards or grabbed by the racists and the right.
It can fuel great new socialist movements that offer hope or give ammunition to the fascists.
This is the era of both Trump and Jeremy Corbyn.
The 1930s was not just the era of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. It also saw unprecedented mass strikes in France and the highest point of the US labour movement so far.
Capitalism is not delivering, and it is less and less credible to say that with just a few small reforms it can be made to work for the benefit of all.
For a period in the 1950s special circumstances allowed the system to expand and deliver some improvements for at least a section of the world’s ordinary people. But that era has long past.
Today there are many parallels with the 1930s, when fascist movements flourished against the background of a devastating economic crisis.
The threat of fascism should be taken very seriously.
The regime responsible for the Holocaust was destroyed, but the system that created it lives on. But the 1930s was not just the era of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.
It also saw unprecedented mass strikes in France and the highest point of the US labour movement so far.
It also saw the Spanish Revolution and powerful workers’ struggles in Germany that could have blocked the fascists and gone on to fight for socialist change.
One of the key elements today is the failure of the Labour-type social democratic parties. In Spain, Greece, France and Britain they implemented austerity, and paid a heavy price.
In some cases this has fuelled parties further to the left, such as—for a period—Syriza and Podemos.
Elsewhere the far right has grown—such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France.
The trade union leaders—who in general have held back struggle in Britain, the US and much of Europe—have also made it easier for the right to grow.
When there are big strikes workers feel their unity and their anger is directed upwards against the bosses and the state.
When struggle is held back it is easier for individualism and division to emerge.
Sunday 4 December could see Ukip leader Nigel Farage lead a march in London at the same time as fascist Norbert Hofer wins the Austrian presidential election.
It’s also important to say that broad similarities between events in different countries can mask fundamental differences.
Donald Trump’s victory is not the same as the Leave vote in Britain.
It’s true that both rest upon deep dissatisfaction among broad layers of working class people. But there is a strongly progressive case for opposing the neoliberal, austerity-imposing, migrant-repelling European Union (EU).
There is no progressive case for Trump.
However contradictory people’s reasons, voting for a bigoted boss is not the same as voting against the bosses’ EU.
The US presidential election saw a 57 percent turnout, a continuation of a long-term trend where about half the population don’t vote. The EU referendum in contrast saw a huge turnout of 72 percent.
Although Trump alienated many leading Republicans, the party and its voters largely held together behind him. Brexit split the Tories in half with many ministers, activists and voters backing Remain.
The Leave side’s most visible supporters were racists no better than Trump. But others were more like those who rallied to Bernie Sanders’ left wing case against neoliberal trade deals.
Marine Le Pen, who could win the first round of France’s election next year, cheered both Trump and Brexit. But her Front National party represents a distinct danger.
Trump barged his way to the head of one of the existing main parties. Le Pen is seeking to sweep them aside with an organised, active movement all of her own.
Trump stands in the tradition of celebrity-turned-Republican-president Ronald Reagan—and of US populists who won big votes only to fizzle away. Le Pen is a real fascist.
Some narratives submerge these differences. For example, many articles have tried to explain a rise in nationalism in psychological terms.
They say industrial decline and economic crisis made fearful workers turn inwards. They say civil rights and women’s liberation made white people and men resentful of a relative loss of “privilege”.
Others erect a false division in society.
On one side are the backward isolationists—the angry, the racist, the “uneducated” and the poor (or at least poor whites).
On the other are the forces of openness—the European Union (EU), the US Democratic Party, globalisation and anyone with progressive politics. But this masks a real class war.
The institutions of neoliberal capitalism are no friends of those who defend freedom and equality.
Toxic nationalists are no friends of those who have suffered from globalisation’s effects.
Democrat Barack Obama oversaw more deportations than any other president, across a border that’s already in large part walled off.
Labour prime minister Tony Blair brought “tough measures” against immigrants supposedly “placing our hospitality under threat”.
Complacent assumptions that the racist right will burn itself out are dangerous. So is despair that overstates their strength and our weakness. Both are recipes for inaction that can be lethal
The EU builds external border controls to keep out supposed “economic migrants”, “bogus asylum seekers” and “terror threats”. These same myths boosted racists against EU migrants.
The respectable yet often vicious Islamophobia of the “war on terror” also created a space for more extreme forms.
Caricaturing the situation lets a society that breeds despair off the hook—along with politicians who use racism to exploit or deflect that despair. And it avoids the question of what we can do about it.
Confronting reality with all its contradictions reveals a challenge that’s daunting but not hopeless.
Racist scapegoating can tap into workers’ fears. But few workers buy into it fully.
Many believe that there is too much immigration in the abstract, for example, yet defend actual immigrants—from their workmates to refugee children.
There is a sense of the weakness of the socialist left and the trade union movement. But the sudden surges in support for Sanders and Corbyn revealed much wider demand for left wing ideas than previously suspected.
Mass protests and strikes appear to be reviving in the US. In Britain they remain generally at a low ebb—although when given the chance to strike workers take it up enthusiastically.
The situation can change. Throughout the history of the working class in Britain, long periods of decline for the trade unions have alternated with strike waves that build them anew.
There’s no guarantee that this will happen again, though stirrings of activity even among supposedly unorganisable groups of workers are a reminder not to rule it out.
France, where the situation currently seems bleakest, shows this vividly. Authoritarian president Charles De Gaulle governed almost unchallenged except by the hard right, up to a few months before the biggest general strike ever in 1968.
And mass strikes earlier this year were a reminder of working class power, re-energising debates about how to unleash it.
Economic crisis and the political volatility it produces can increase the opportunities for such explosions.
People are less likely to trust the existing system to safeguard their future and more likely to look beyond it—one way or another.
Complacent assumptions that the racist right will burn itself out are dangerous.
So is despair that overstates their strength and our weakness. Both are recipes for inaction that can be lethal.
Instead we need a mass movement against racism, united opposition to the fascists who feed on it, and a real alternative to the system that breeds it.