Extremism and economics: A complicated relationship

To what extent is the rise of right-wing extremism in Europe due to the financial crisis? Across Europe, the rise of political parties like Golden Dawn in Greece, the Austrian Freedom Party and Party for Freedom in the Netherlands has led many commentators to attribute their support to the onset of a severe economic downturn and recession. But this relationship, argue Matt Goodwin and Anthony Painter, is more complicated than we often think.

Underlying the above assumption is an older argument, which was often wheeled out to explain why Germany turned to the Nazis, and why white Americans reacted violently to the presence of African Americans in southern states. It goes something like this: when resources such as jobs and social housing become increasingly scarce, some citizens -though particularly those further down the social and economic ladder- feel as though their position in society is under threat, and so shift behind extremist parties that pledge to halt or curb these threats. In short, they express prejudice toward threatening others not because of irrational hatred, but as part of an instrumental attempt to protect their resources and status in society.

While it is true that the modern far right has been most successful among those groups in society that occupy a precarious position -blue collar manual workers and the lower middle classes- there are also three reasons why this argument is not particularly convincing.

The first is the fact that the rise of extreme right-wing parties began long before the collapse of the Lehman brothers and the arrival of a global financial crisis. In fact, it had been during periods of relative economic stability and growth -in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s- that parties like the Austrian Freedom Party or Front National in France were scoring some of their most impressive performances. Furthermore, while their voters tended to be financially insecure, they were generally not unemployed or on welfare.

The tendency to ignore this longer-term trend was perhaps best evident in coverage of the French presidential elections, much of which directly linked support for Marine Le Pen to the eurozone crisis. Yet the reality is that her father had been winning impressive levels of support since the mid-1980s, and achieved his strongest performance in 2002, an altogether different economic climate.

The second point concerns the types of extremist parties that are prospering in Europe. Recent performances by the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece has sparked widespread concern about a possible return of mass support for National Socialism. But Golden Dawn is one of  the exceptions, rather than representative of the norm. As numerous studies have shown, the the types of far right parties in Europe that have been most successful are those that have downplayed the central tenets of Nazism, mainly biological racism, anti-Semitism and open hostility toward liberal democracy. While their actions may be disingenuous, the most successful parties have talked more about cultural (rather than racial) conflicts, defending Jews from the threat of Islam and advocating more democracy, such as through referenda. It is notable that the PVV under Geert Wilders, for example, adopts a strongly pro-Israel stance.

The rise of Golden Dawn should be seen more as a by-product of desperate protest than a genuine public endorsement of nazism. Indeed, according to one early poll around half of Golden Dawn voters didn’t know who they were voting for. This is an important distinction, as the volatile nature of its support suggests that a protest party is distinctly unlikely to sustain a major challenge to the dominant parties. And when we look to the countries that some fear may suffer the same fate as Greece – Italy and Spain – there is no neo-Nazi movement waiting in the wings. The extreme rightwing Platform for Catalonia in Spain has enjoyed limited local success, but this is not the National Socialist party mark two. Meanwhile, in Italy former fascists such as Gianfranco Fini have only been allowed into the corridors of power because of their renunciation of Mussolini and anti-semitism.

The third point concerns the drivers of support for the far right. Concerns over scarce resources matter, clearly. But all of the recent evidence suggests that concerns over national identity and ways of life matter more. In other words, citizens are not endorsing the far right in response to feelings of economic threat alone. Rather, they also feel as though these parties are meeting their anxieties over perceived threats to their identity, values and ways of life, and they felt this way long before they had even heard of the words ‘credit crunch’. Increasingly, this ‘threat’ is being traced by the far right to the door of Islam.

Without doubt, the financial crisis and recession have added to what is arguably already a perfect storm for the modern far right. But let’s not kid ourselves: far-right populists and extremists were already well on their way amidst record levels of public concern over immigration, public dissatisfaction with the main parties, and weakening bonds between voters and the main parties.

Economics can harden cultural concerns into political action and even violence but the roots of extremism are far more complex than is generally understood. That would imply the need for a very different response from governments, political parties, security forces, civil society and the media than simply waiting for the economic storm clouds to pass over.

Matthew Goodwin and Anthony Painter


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