History suggests democracy will not be saved by further disconnection of economy from society

There are significant parallels - and differences - between countermovements that gripped Europe and the US about 100 years ago and forces shaping politics today

French president Emmanuel Macron leaves the polling booth in last weekend's first round of France's parliamentary elections. Photograph: Yara Nardi/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Far-right political victories and prospective governments in Europe and the United States are stimulating a search for historical precedents and explanatory frameworks of these movements. That should make it easier to understand and challenge them.

Liberals and centrists shocked by the sudden intrusion of such forces provide weak accounts of why they have happened. Their world of market-driven globalisation, opening borders, regulatory oversight and legal separation of governing powers is taken so much for granted that they are perplexed about why it is now under attack so vehemently.

Emmanuel Macron personifies this trend among political leaders. His sudden calling of the French parliamentary elections without consultation has comprehensively rebounded on him by producing choices between right and left extremes that his career has been dedicated to removing. From each direction he is seen as an arrogant globalist insensitive to the marginalised victims of the admittedly successful commercial regime his policies created.

Mike O'Sullivan: The demise of Macron as a political force will be felt across EuropeOpens in new window ]

If France becomes ungovernable the EU will be deprived of Macron’s energy and policy insights just when they are most needed to hold it together against similar right-wing forces in Europe and the US. His recent warning that the EU is mortal and could perish may come true, but at his own hand. Unless, that is, the long-shot gamble at which he has hinted comes to pass, ie a far-right alliance led by Marine Le Pen fails to deliver and is seen off in the 2027 French presidential elections. If that happens, there is no guarantee liberal centrists would be the beneficiaries.


It helps to compare our period with previous ones as we come to terms with these forces. In her study of interwar Europe, Against the World, Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars Tara Zahra does just that. A professor of history at Chicago university, with a central and east European background, she examines how an earlier period of intense globalisation in the later 19th century was followed by resistance in the 1920s and 1930s. Free trade was curtailed, passports introduced and immigration controls and stronger tariff barriers were imposed, leading in many cases to authoritarianism or outright dictatorship.

Zahra detects similar tendencies at play in the US and Europe today. The popular politics that drove anti-globalism then, she suggests, “is no less a history of the present”. Of course the interwar years came after the collapse of Russian, Habsburg, Ottoman and German empires and the rise of nation-states and mass democracy. The pre-war expansion of markets, trade and migration took place in a largely imperial and elite setting that was severely disrupted in the 1920s.

But Zahra is struck by the similarities between the languages and practices of radical nationalism, anti-globalism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigration then and now.

Is there a danger of anachronism in drawing such historical parallels? The distinguished historian Mark Mazower thinks there may be if the presumed relationship between globalisation then or now and democracy is pressed too far. Reviewing Zahra’s book he argues that “the growth patterns of recent decades are unprecedented and without plausible parallel” so that “the degree of openness in the world economy around the year 2000 was far greater than in any other period of history”.

World trade’s collapse by a third after the 1929 slump was not at all matched after 2009. And the gold standard underpinning the postwar system was far more severe in its deflationary effects for newly democratic states to handle. Mazower says the “effort to return to old-style globalisation slammed into the mass politics of the interwar years with catastrophic results”. Opposition to globalisation therefore became rational, whether expressed in autarchic, state-led development – or Soviet-style regimes. It took another war and many decades of gradual nationally-led democratic growth to produce first European integration and then international globalisation.

Another perspective on these histories comes from the Hungarian social and historical theorist Karl Polanyi. His book, The Great Transformation, The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, was published in New York in 1944 after his exile from Austria to Britain and the US when Hitler came to power.

It has enjoyed a growing reputation since then for its deep critique of the doctrinaire laissez-faire market economics that underpinned the interwar – and modern neoliberal – globalisations. Their efforts to disembed the economy from society are bound to fail, Polanyi argued. They inevitably encounter resistance from a countermovement to protect society, including from working class, peasantry and other sectors that become its victims.

Polanyi’s warnings have lessons for contemporary opponents of the social inequality, geopolitical volatility, virulent nationalism and conspiracy fantasies that characterise far-right ideologies today. They are uncannily reminiscent of interwar vocabularies, notwithstanding the differences involved.

They tell us democracy will not be saved by more globalisation but by much greater embedding of economic policymaking in social change.