Across Europe and beyond, politics has seen a resurgence of the extreme right. In the UK, groups such as the English Defence League and the British National Party have seen increased media attention and become household names. In Europe, groups like Golden Dawn and Jobbik have entered the mainstream and now have a place in national government.
For some time, it has been generally accepted among political commentators and historians that periods of economic difficulty lead to a spread of nationalistic ideas and the sense of ‘an enemy within’. This theory largely finds its roots within the politics of interwar Germany and the rise of the Nazis but how much does that model apply to the modern political system and how true is it to say that austerity inherently incubates fascism?
Dr Matthew Feldman, an expert on fascist ideology and the contemporary far-right in Europe and the USA says that although austerity does have a part to play, other factors also have an important role.
He said: “In terms of a general rule, economic insecurity in the case of Greece or interwar Germany does lead to a rise in extremes, left and right. But by putting some numbers on it in a contemporary sense, it suggests that it’s not so easy to draw a one to one parallel.
“One of the things that’s interesting in the case of the rise of the Nazis is that they were in the best position of any party to be able to capitalise on the economic situation of the time by establishing branches, using sophisticated propaganda and a range of other very specific approaches that can also be seen – perhaps in a much more minor way – to apply to places like Greece as well.
“I think it’s not just a confluence of negative circumstances but more the readiness of extreme parties to capitalise on these sorts of things. Voters don’t just go looking for the first extreme party they can sign up to, they have to find one that appeals to – in the case of the Nazis or other far right groups – prejudices and other emotive issues usually found in the far right stable. I think that still applies today even though the circumstances are very different.”
Statistics would seem to support the view that economic turmoil and a rise in support for the extreme right do not necessarily go hand in hand. Of the EU countries that have seen a substantial rise in populist right-wing support, Finland has seen the biggest increase of electoral success, where the True Finns saw a jump from 4.1 per cent of the vote in 2007 to 19 per cent in 2011. This is significant as Finland were also among the nations least affected by the economic downturn.
This being said however, the True Finns campaigned heavily on the back of the economic crisis and vehemently opposed the bailouts. It is also important to say that the True Finns are unlike many other populist right wing groups and their somewhat socialist economic policies would make it difficult to categorise them specifically as an extreme-right party.
Another example of the difficulty in drawing a parallel between economic difficulties and extreme-right support is in the case of Latvia. Latvia was one of the nations hit hardest by the economic crash and saw a rise in popularity of the National Alliance, a populist radical right-wing group. However this rise in popularity is at odds with the dates surrounding the economic crash. While the economic problems were at their worst between 2008 and 2009, the National Alliance only gained 0.7 per cent at the 2010 elections. This is contrasted by the 13.9 per cent they achieved in 2011, a year after the economy stabilized.
The National Alliance, much like the True Finns, have been highly critical of the management of the European Union and have taken advantage of rising tensions around imposed cuts to public spending to garner support. Dr Feldman argues that although the structure of the EU itself was designed to curtail the spread of extremist groups, the politics of the European project can have a profound effect through its successes and perceived failures.
“Obviously it doesn’t create greater confidence in some of the institutions that Europe has evolved,” said Dr Feldman, speaking on the impact of the financial crash. “Some parties have policies in place and they have been able to say: “Look, what we’ve been telling you is right” or argue that what’s happening validates their arguments about things like demographic change and in their view, the rise of things like extremist Islamism.
“One of the things that seem to be characteristic of these groups on the extreme-right is the recourse to scapegoating. I have no doubt that what we’re seeing in regards to anti-Muslim prejudice is a kind of anti-Semitism for the 21st Century.”
This prejudice is evidence in the literature produced by most of the extreme right-wing groups present in European politics at the moment and has undoubtedly been fuelled by negative media coverage of Islam.
A recent study from Cardiff University found that of 974 newspaper articles published from 2000 to 2008, more than a quarter of them portrayed Islam as ‘dangerous, backward or irrational’. The same study also found that references to radical Muslims outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one.
This kind of coverage has played into the hands of ethno-nationalists who have been able to use Muslims in the same way that the Nazis used Jews in interwar Germany to create a ‘common enemy’ for their supporters. This approach, and the subsequent revulsion from supporters of multiculturalism, has allowed right-wing groups to segregate would-be supporters from the mainstream even further by bringing them closer to their own extremist ideology.
“What we are seeing now is a culturist turn in this prejudice,” says Dr Feldman. “It looks at things like assimilation or religion and doesn’t try to be essentialist but rather says that it doesn’t matter what any of these individuals or groups do, they will always be outsiders.
“It goes by a number of polysyllabic terms such as ethno-differentialism or differentialist racism but it’s essentially about turning it around and saying that the people in favour of multiculturalism are the real racists because they’re not willing to preserve the ethnic group or cultural background of a particular people.”
Undoubtedly, the influx of different cultural backgrounds to mainland Europe in recent years has played a big part in shaping some of the societal anxieties that lead individuals to turn to far right-wing groups. A poll from Ipsos in 2011 found that more than half of all Europeans believe that there are too many immigrants in their country and that immigration is having a negative impact on their lives.
It would certainly be true to an extent to say that fascism, in the modern context, is a political response to globalisation. However, it should also be said that austerity has had a part to play in exacerbating the social tensions that typically arrive when introducing a new social grouping to a geographical area.
One of the most common charges against immigrant groups is that they take up jobs that could otherwise be offered to ‘native’ people thus causing the crisis of unemployment seen across Europe. Although this myth and others like it are regularly debunked, these kinds of reports are often used to claim that immigrants are the root cause of the austerity that many communities face across Europe.
Although it may not be true to say that austerity inherently incubates fascism, it clearly has an important role in how the roots of extremist ideologies are formed. In the case of the rise of modern fascism, austerity has been used as a tool to evoke nationalistic mentalities and as the basis for creating a ‘common enemy’ for disenchanted individuals to unite against.
Extremist views often grow out of our greatest fears and of our failure to understand the people around us. The extreme right-wing parties of Europe and beyond have been able to capitalise on the fallibility of human nature and use this to gain support for their often prejudiced ideologies.
The best way for governments and communities to combat this is to listen to the concerns of individuals and involve them in the political process, regardless of how uncomfortable their concerns may be.