Extremist threat is not just about the economy, stupid

By Matthew Goodwin and Anthony Painter, September 7, 2012

To what extent is the rise of right-wing extremism in Europe, including Golden Dawn in Greece, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands (PVV), due to the financial crisis? Many believe it to be so. Nick Clegg suggested that the mix of economic insecurity and political paralysis that has followed the Eurozone crisis provides "an ideal recipe for an increase in extremism".

Underlying this is an older argument, 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 scarce, some citizens - particularly those further down the social and economic ladder - feel their position in society is under threat, and so shift to extremist parties that pledge to halt or curb these threats.

True, the modern far-right has been most successful among those who occupy a precarious position - blue-collar workers and the lower middle classes. Yet its rise began long before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. In fact, it was during periods of relative economic stability and growth - in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s -- that parties like the FPO or Front National in France achieved some of their most impressive results. Furthermore, while their voters tended to be financially insecure, they were generally not unemployed or on benefits.

Much of the coverage of the French elections directly linked support for Marine Le Pen to the Eurozone crisis. Yet her father had been winning impressive levels of support since the mid-1980s, and his strongest performance was in 2002, in an altogether different economic climate.

We also have to look at the types of extremist parties prospering in Europe. Recent showings by the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn have sparked concern about the possible return of mass support for National Socialism. But Golden Dawn is not the norm. As numerous studies have shown, far-right parties in Europe that have been most successful are those that have downplayed the central tenets of Nazism, mainly biological racism, antisemitism and open hostility toward liberal democracy.

Its rise began long before the collapse of Lehman

While this 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. The PVV under Geert Wilders, for example, adopts a strongly pro-Israel stance.

Golden Dawn's rise 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 grouping is unlikely to sustain a major challenge to the dominant parties. When we look to 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 right-wing Platform for Catalonia in Spain has enjoyed limited local success, but is not the National Socialist party mark two. In Italy, former fascists such as Gianfranco Fini have been allowed back to the corridors of power only because of their renunciation of Mussolini and antisemitism.

Recent evidence suggests that concerns over national identity matter more. Those endorsing the far right also feel that these parties are meeting their anxieties over perceived threats to their identity, values and ways of life, and they felt this long before they'd even heard the words "credit crunch". Increasingly, this "threat" is being traced by the far-right to the door of Islam.

The financial crisis has added to what is arguably already a perfect storm for the modern far right. But let's not forget: far-right populists were already well on their way amid record levels of public concern over immigration, public dissatisfaction with the main parties, and weakening bonds between these parties and the voters.

Economics can harden cultural concerns into political action and even violence but the roots of extremism are complex. And there is a need for governments, political parties, security forces, civil society and the media to do more than simply wait for the economic storm clouds to pass.

Matthew Goodwin and Anthony Painter are the founders of the Extremis Project

Last updated: 10:45am, September 7 2012