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Austerity + Extremism

News & Features | November 25, 2013

“All the trash must be swept out of the country.”

Trash, in this instance, refers to the Roma people, who make up almost 10 percent of Hungary’s population. These are the words of Attila Laszlo of the Civil Guard Association for a Better Future, a Hungarian anti-Roma militant organization.

In August 2012, marchers took to the streets, terrorizing the Hungarian Roma population. The marchers were connected to the Jobbik party, a Hungarian extremist nationalist party. The party is growing in popularity, having won 17 percent of the vote in 2010 elections.

As austerity measures gain greater support in Europe, more and more people are turning to groups such as these as they become frustrated with mainstream economic policies. Until recently, Europeans enjoyed the luxuries of abundant social welfare programs, the loss of which has created enormous socioeconomic tensions. Faced with the onset of recession, many European nations have opted to cut spending in an attempt to reduce the deficit, a policy that includes limiting welfare program eligibility and laying off government workers. The question of how to best allocate funding during a recession is one that has stumped nations for decades and has certainly been present in recent U.S. policy discussions. Advocates of austerity measures argue that budget cuts are necessary to decrease the deficit, claiming that shortages are a necessary part of the natural economic boom and bust cycle. Many Europeans are harshly disputing this policy, claiming that austerity only heightens the pain of recession by causing increased unemployment, leading to greater welfare spending and reduced tax revenue.

Eurostat, the European statistics database, reported that unemployment in the Eurozone peaked at 12.1 percent this March, with 26 million people unemployed. Even Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, is experiencing increased financial inequality as austerity measures are instituted. According to a recent Gallup Poll, over half of Europeans believe that austerity policies in the European Union have failed. Massive unrest and protests have become commonplace, but there is a more serious concern with the quieter, disconcerting movement festering in the background.

Populist extremist groups are taking advantage of the newfound vulnerability tied to the economic crisis, gaining power through simple, crowd-pleasing messages. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism in their book Twenty-First Century Populism as “an ideology that pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.” Essentially, today’s populists use “scapegoatism” to account for society’s woes.

Extremist groups in France, Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, and the Netherlands are preaching an anti-immigration, anti-austerity, and anti-unification platform that is gaining popularity. The National Front Party is a populist party that was established in France in 1972 to represent economically protectionist, socially conservative interests. Marine Le Pen of the National Front Party won 17.9 percent of the vote in the 2012 French presidential election, an astonishing feat for a third party candidate. These ideas may not be new, but their popular reception most certainly is. “Populists are always there,” says former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. “In good times it is not easy for them to get votes, but in these bad times all their arguments, the easy solutions of populism and nationalism are getting new ears and votes.”

This new brand of nationalism seems to be shadowing its fascist predecessors, turning to “otherizing” as a unifying measure. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström warns, “hand in hand with the economic crisis, xenophobia has worsened.” The Golden Dawn, a far-right political party in Greece, published an article referring to Adolf Hitler as “a great social reformer.” The party also openly uses Nazi imagery. And they are not alone in their bigoted imagery. The Jobbik party in Hungary has also expressed anti-Semitic tendencies and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom has expressed outright opposition to Islam. Some more subtle statements are equally concerning. The Danish People’s Party website declares: “Denmark is not an immigrant-country and never has been. Thus we will not accept transformation to a multiethnic society.” The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies wrote a report warning that “the long-term consequences of this crisis have yet to surface. The problems caused will be felt for decades even if the economy turns for the better in the near future […] We wonder if we as a continent really understand what has hit us.” In other words, the resurgence of extremist sentiment may be the biggest disaster of austerity.

Additionally, the tactics of these extremist groups are becoming increasingly violent. 92 people were killed in Norway in 2011 after a right wing extremist, affiliated with the English Defense League and other anti-Islamic European Organizations bombed a government building and youth summer camp. In the same year, a neo-Nazi group responsible for the murders of nine immigrants (the “Nationalist Socialist Underground”) was discovered in Germany. Its trial is ongoing. More recently, on September 18th antifascist activist and rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by a member of the Golden Dawn Party in Greece.

This phenomenon is not limited to Europe. In mid-September, the powerful Parti Québecois announced its plan to outlaw religious apparel in government spaces in Canada. The proposal follows a 2004 law passed in France that prohibits wearing religious symbols and is considered to specifically target the wearing of hijabs. The policy was justified as a security interest as well as a reinforcement of the separation between church and state. Despite this explanation, the Parti Québecois’ motivations remain unclear. The ban intends to prohibit religious attire and serving kosher and halal foods in public schools, yet the giant crucifix hanging on the wall of Quebec’s National Assembly would remain untouched. The party may be alienating its small minority constituent as a means of emphasizing a Québecois identity, which would help in its battle to secure sovereignty from Canada proper. Martin Patriquin of the New York Times writes that “by targeting Quebec’s religious minorities—in particular, veiled Muslim women, mostly in and around Montreal—the party is rallying its overwhelmingly white Francophone base.”

The American recession has also brought a wave of extremism, mainly in the form of the conservative Tea Party. Unlike the European parties, the Tea Party advocates for smaller government. Nevertheless, its nationalistic and xenophobic fervor is strikingly similar to that of European groups like the Danish People’s Party.

Moreover, the emerging fear of “terrorism” in the last decade has led to a wariness of those who are different. This has been imposed through policies like wiretapping and “stop and frisk,” which target people of color and of Arab descent. Like the Parti Québecois’ religious attire ban, these policies are flown under the banner of national security but objectively they are being used to create a common enemy.

Benjamin Ward is the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, an organization that investigates and advocates against human rights violations. He speculates, “perhaps the focus on Islamist terrorism has come at the expense of paying attention to the activities of these groups.” In our obsession with the possibility of Middle-Eastern terrorism, we seem to overlook the fact that similar atrocities have taken place in the West. Maybe it is this newfound acceptability of anti-Islamic or generally bigoted sentiment that has allowed these politically marginal ideas to develop. Ward worries that the newfound respect for these groups is dangerous, saying, “the mainstreaming of the politics of extremist political parties is a very important part of understanding why they pose such challenge to human rights in Europe.”

Some pundits have begun to question if today’s economic downturn could put us at risk for the kind of social unrest that led to the Holocaust and Second World War. Among them is Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF. She cautions, “The risk from an economic point of view is that of retraction, rising protectionism, isolation…This is exactly the description of what happened in the 30s, and what followed is not something we are looking forward to.” This seems like a reach, but it is evident that with recession comes vulnerability and manipulation. It remains to be seen whether or not today’s recession-hit nations will be able to weather the storm of economic downturn without succumbing to the allure of extremism.