Not since the 1930s has the threat of racism and fascism been so great in the west

Since 1989 we have been living in a fool’s paradise. The triumphalism about the future that greeted the collapse of communism has proved to be profoundly misplaced. The reason why we should fear the rise of Le Pen is not simply that fascism and an ugly racism are alive, well and in the ascendant in one of the heartlands of Europe, but rather that the world that we now live in is in a corrosive state. Not since the 1930s has the threat of the irrational, of a turn towards barbarism, been so great in the west. It has become an arrogant truism of western life that the evils of the modern world – authoritarianism, ethnic conflict, illiberalism – are coterminous with the developing world. It was telling how some western leaders, including one of our own ministers, in the aftermath of September 11, spoke of the civilised world, and by implication of the uncivilised world, the dark-skinned savages of backward cultures. It is not clear how Le Pen or Berlusconi or Haider fit this world view.

Europe, of course, has always been as much the cradle of barbarism as civilisation, of racism and ethnic cleansing as well as the Renaissance and democracy. Racism and fascism are part of its history and therefore always incipient in its present. Racist parties of the extreme right are in government in Austria, Denmark and Italy. And they are resurgent in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Belgium. But it is, above all, the reasons for their resurgence that give cause for profound concern: they suggest that we are now entering a new Dark Age.

The first factor in this resurgence is the feeble state of the left. The traditional left has more or less collapsed: the French Communist party now polls little more than the British Communist party at its height. European social democracy, especially its New Labour variant, has come to occupy a centre ground where it is no longer easily distinguishable from the centre right. For most of the last century, democratic politics was dominated by the contest between left and right and as such offered a sense of choice. That choice has now evaporated.

The implications of this for democracy have been little considered. But what if the political marketplace that replaces it is precisely that, a range of products which are largely indistinguishable and palpably fail to offer any real alternative to the status quo, no fundamental critique of society, no different vision of the future? Historically this is what the left offered: its very organisational basis – the labour movement – was rooted in principles, which, if not always inimical to capitalism, certainly offered radically different values. New Labour, in contrast, increasingly raises its money from the rich rather than from the unions. It no longer speaks to its own, distinct constituencies – blue-collar workers and the poor – but a nebulous middle England defined by its political promiscuity.

This brings us to the second factor, the decay of democracy. The aspiration of, and ethical claim for, democracy has been as a vehicle for representing the wishes of the entire people. Democracy is not – yet at least – the subject of a frontal assault from fascism, as it was in the 1930s, but rather of a corrosion from within. Democratic politics is increasingly seen as a less and less useful stage for making meaningful choices about society. This is reflected in the declining status of politics and politicians. It also finds expression in declining voter turnout. This, of course, has long been a characteristic of American politics. But in the last general election here, voter turnout was 59%, over 10% less than in any previous election. In the first round of the French presidential election, the turnout was a similarly record low.

The result is that politics is becoming the preserve of a declining proportion of the population, in some cases not much more than half. Those who bother to vote do so because they feel they have a stake in society: those who don’t are those who feel they have little stake. The result is predictable: the political agenda is set by the privileged rather than the underprivileged, the range of debate increasingly circumscribed. In such a situation, the political world becomes more and more detached – potentially dangerously so – from the society it purports to represent.

Modern European democracy, far from being enfeebled by the left/right argument, actually depended on it for its efficacy and virility. Remove that polarity and politics becomes bland, impoverished and increasingly dominated by the market. The most extreme form of this degeneration can be found in Italy, where the trends that are apparent elsewhere, including Britain, can be found in extremis. The market and democracy have become dangerously intertwined, with Berlusconi both prime minister and media godfather. The formal trappings of democracy remain in place but they have been largely stripped of their substance. The Italian regime is a new kind of populism, which combines the tribal racism now on the rise throughout Europe (the Northern League), traditional fascism (the National Alliance, heirs to Mussolini) and authoritarian and unscrupulous corporate power (Forza Italia). If one wants to see the shape of new-style European fascism then one need look no further.

The third factor behind the growth of new racism is the relationship between traditional European racism and the rise of migration. In a continent steeped in racist traditions (anti-semitic, anti-Gypsy), the latent prejudice toward even more visible and even more distinctive minorities – namely, those of different colours and different cultures who come from outside of Europe – should not be underestimated. And the moment of engagement with these new minorities occurs when Europe is suffering a profound loss of roots and identity. In little more than 30 years, west European nations have become increasingly interwoven and more and more indistinguishable from one another. At the same time, Europe has suffered a precipitous decline in its global influence, a process that has partly been obscured by continuing, overweening “western” – namely, American – power. The continent, barring the integration project, has little to boast about, and its self-confidence has suffered accordingly. Of course, multiculturalism and diversity have found many new friends in Europe, including the UK, but it would be a mistake to regard this as the dominant trend, or to believe that racism is in decline, or that 50 years means that the passage of time has resolved the problem.

The fourth factor is the US and the dangerous turn that global politics has taken since September 11. The war against terrorism has, from the outset, worn a distinctly racist colouration, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. And western (above all, American) collusion in subsequent brutal Israeli aggression – all in the name of race and ethnicity – has only served to reinforce this. The new willingness of the US to intervene in the developing world wherever and when ever it sees fit speaks not only of the fact that it is the sole superpower but also that it is now prepared to act like an imperial power: the American elite now unashamedly uses terms like Pax Americana and the American Empire. Even in the UK, there is an attempt to relegitimise the notion of colonialism. Such attitudes speak of a new sense of Caucasian superiority, a new desire to subjugate those of other colours and cultures in the name of (our) civilisation. This can only fuel domestic racism, the more so because this time around the subjects of this racism are also the subjects of the new colonialism.

Le Pen in France, and the rise of racism across Europe, is no transient phenomenon. It is the harbinger of a new and alarming configuration in European politics, intimately linked to global changes. Racism is part of mainstream political discourse in many European societies. If 1989 heralded sweeping changes in politics, the rise of racism will do likewise. It is all happening with frightening speed. Europe is sliding into a new abyss.