POPULISM: Democracy Ltd is a wake-up call for the people of Europe at a time when the dark forces of populism are on the rise.

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
Published date: March 24, 2019

Democracy Ltd

Robert Schabus

Allegro Film

Austria/France/UK, 2019. 87min

In his timely and taut examination of what is driving Europe’s headlong rush into the facile charms of right-wing ‘populist’ parties, Austrian filmmaker Robert Schabus provides an insight into the human stories behind today’s political and social upheavals.

In 2016 in his debut documentary feature, Bauer Unser (Our Farmer, 2016) Schabus examined the «faster, cheaper, more» mantra behind Austria’s industrialised food production system and the fraught connections between economic policy, industry and society.

With Democracy Ltd he widens the focus and roams across Europe’s deeply unsettled dividing lines, spending time with striking French workers in Amiens, where thousands of low-skilled factory jobs have disappeared in recent years. He’s also talking to the Polish people who are now doing those jobs for a fraction of a French wage after the multinationals shifted production east; and digging into the sense of abandonment in England’s depressed Northeast that was behind the shock ‘Leave’ result in the UK’s EU referendum in 2016.

«I have two kids, one is 18, the other 12. For me to find another job at 50, it is not easy.»

It’s not only about the gilets jaune – with which Schabus opens the film –  the ‘yellow jackets’ of the thousands of anti-austerity protestors who last autumn erupted onto the streets of Paris.

It is also about the ordinary Austrian grandmother, living in an Art Deco-inspired pre-war block of flats, who feels overwhelmed in a society where change has happened to her or the working class Greeks, whose emphatic Oxi! – ‘No’ – to humiliating and punishing economic austerity inflicted by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels when Grexit was threatened, long before Brexit hove onto the horizon.

He weaves these apparently disparate strands together at a time when the EU falters on the brink of disaster, with plummeting faith in political parties and Europe’s centre faltering as Angela Merkel, the German chancellor (a byword for stability) is due to step down in 2021.

Schabus also fields a handful of the ‘experts’ so blithely dismissed by the likes of Britain’s Brexiteers, and one ‘faceless’ EU bureaucrat: Günter Verheugen, the bloc’s commissioner for Enlargement and, later, Enterprise and Industry, between 1999-2010.

The commentators are intelligent and reasoned; Verheugen is a member of Germany’s SPD Social Democratic party, a key plank in Germany’s ‘grand coalition’ that has long supported stability over politicking in its support for Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Replaced by low-skilled workers

But their careful analysis and intellectual arguments do little to ameliorate the raw pain and anger of those like the 50-year old French factory worker who takes Schabus on a tour of the shuttered and abandoned factories of Amien’s windswept industrial suburbs.

«I have two kids, one is 18, the other 12. For me to find another job at 50, it is not easy,» he says, as he drives around a weed-covered, empty industrial site where «once a thousands jobs» existed.

«Everyone wanted to show these politicians that we were sick to death of broken promises.»

Far from the Amiens, regional capital of the Somme – where a century ago working class British, French and German soldiers died when millions fighting in a war that arguably sprang from the same sources of capitalist overreach and uncaring exploitation threatening to overwhelm Europe today – in another old battleground in Lodz, Poland, his factory job that earns him 2,000 Euros a month plus social benefits is now being done for as little as 447 Euros a month by low-skilled Polish (and Ukrainian) workers.

The juxtaposition begs the question: what is free movement of people worth when free movement of goods and services takes their jobs away?

Schabus unpicks the main reasons why a narrow majority of those Britons that voted in the Brexit referendum of June, 2016, opted for Leave.

«Everyone wanted to show these politicians that we were sick to death of broken promises,» a tattoo studio owner in Sunderland says, adding that attempts to save factories from closing down via state aid were prevented by «EU rules».

It is an argument that the Brexit-supporting leader of Britain’s parliamentary Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour party, also uses, although there are some loopholes in the EU regulative that allows for state interventions.

Nevertheless, the lies peddled by the fabulously wealthy backers of Brexit (and of populist parties across Europe) tend to be believed by those ordinary people who will suffer most from the consequences of Brexit and other diabolical policies.

«The more things change, the more they stay the same», as French critic and writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously wrote in January 1849 – at another time of historic convulsions across Europe.

Europe is «sleepwalking»

Belgian historian, David Van Reybrouck, one of the expert commentators, neatly summarises why ordinary Europeans are feeling so frustrated: «What we see now is a massive distrust between politicians and citizens,» – the result, he claims, of the shift since the 1980s in power towards capitalism, to the markets and away from politicians and the people.

«We have an expression in Dutch: if two dogs are fighting over a bone, a third one runs away with it… and that is exactly what we have now.»

«We have an expression in Dutch: if two dogs are fighting over a bone, a third one runs away with it… and that is exactly what we have now.»

According to Van Reybrouck, even in Norway – widely regarded as an arbiter for social (and economic) stability – 41 per cent of the people believe that political parties are totally corrupt. The figures in EU member states are even worse: 67 per cent in Belgium, 70 per cent in France, 80 per cent in France and over 90 per cent in Greece.

And as long as this persists, there is no way to bring Europe’s global capitalists to heel.

It is a theme that is becoming increasingly widespread: writing in mid-February for Project Syndicate – a liberal international media freedom initiative  ­– financier George Soros warned that the EU was «sleepwalking towards oblivion» and, could collapse as rapidly as the Soviet Union did in 1991, unless it awoke its «sleeping pro-European majority» before May’s European parliament elections, where populist Eurosceptic parties are predicted to make significant gains.

There’s an ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

Democracy Ltd is indeed a film for interesting times. It ends with an analogy for the democratic process, that it is preferable, though difficult, to repair a speeding car while in motion, than to do so when you have crashed.


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