Far Right Economics in Europe - Elites, Workers and Capitalism
The crash of 2008 produced all sorts of gloomy predictions. Even The Financial Times ruminated about the ‘future of capitalism’ in a series of prominent articles. High on the list of given dangers was a rise in nationalism, specifically economic nationalism. Comparison was made by commentators and politicians with the hike in protective barriers that governments imposed after financial collapse in the 1930s, an integral part of the dramatic contraction of world trade in that era. As I showed in an article published in the autumn in Global Policy, economic nationalism in this form, i.e. protectionism, has not happened. There have been piecemeal rises in tariffs by some states with some commodities. The likelihood of further liberalisation through the WTO is low. However, there has been nothing akin to the systematic heightening of trade restrictions in the mid Twentieth Century. Parts of the world economy remain mired in recession, but trade volumes have risen. Meanwhile, despite much talk of a return to Keynesian economics over the winter of 2008/9, there has been little shift from the tenets of neoliberalism. The dogmatic pursuit of austerity by governments across Europe is evidence of its ideological entrenchment.
More recently, there has been discussion of a different form of nationalism, not one of governments but of parties of the far right. The historical backdrop is again, of course, the 1930s: recession heightening the appeal of fascism. Clearly, this form of nationalism, an ‘ultra nationalism’, is evident in some European countries. In Greece, Golden Dawn came from nowhere in 2012 to win just under 9% of the vote. It combines local welfare for impoverished ethnic Greeks with paramilitary street violence and has clear support within the state – the police and immigration services. In Hungary, Jobbik (The Movement for a Better Hungary) has 43 of 386 MPs in the national assembly, 8% support in the polls and similarly uses its supporters to combat its enemies, e.g. ‘gypsy criminals’. Another example often sited example is the success of True Finns, now the country’s third largest party.
However, as the better commentaries say, success of the far right is not uniform. Support for the British National Party has fallen leading to internal fractures. Division of the far right in Italy, a likely breeding ground, has similar dogged its fortunes. There appears, moreover, no simple causal link between recession and far right popularity. The electoral rise of True Finns, for instance, like Geert Wilder’s Dutch Freedom Party before it, is largely attributable to anti-immigrant, especially anti-Muslim, sentiment; its consolidation due to hostility to Euro zone bailouts. Moreover, the policies of parties grouped under the heading ‘far right’ are diverse. Part of the attraction of True Finns is its strong social welfarism, formerly a Social Democratic mainstay. At least this is true of party leader Timo Soini. Other True Finn MPs are more neoliberal in respect to privatisation etc. The programmes of parties with fascist lineages, Golden Dawn and Jobbik, do have parallels with those of the 1930s.
Fascist economics from 1923 to 1945 were not, of course, altogether steady and coherent. But consistent was the belief that the economy should be subordinate to the nation: the market was not sacrosanct. Its disruptive role necessitated withdrawal from world markets. Therefore, fascist economics were not merely pragmatic. Corporatism in the words of the BUF ideologue, Raven Thomson, was ‘an organic form, through which the nation can find expression’. Edmondo Rossini spoke of Italian economic autarky reflecting an ‘autarkic mentality’. Through policies like the strict government regulation of finance, forced industrialisation and import substitution greater national self-sufficiency was sought.
Whilst fascist economic policy was most explicit in Italy and Germany, a similar direction – withdrawal from the international economy and greater state involvement - was common to right wing authoritarian governments in Eastern and Southern Europe, indeed governments across much of the world by the late 1930s. Even in France, the establishment shunned a figure like François de La Rocque, leader of Croix de Feu, not for his advocacy of national economics, but his support for political violence. This is important. Fascists always set themselves outside the political centre, scorning it as flabby and corrupt. The point, however, is that in the 1930s the trajectory of fascist policy was an accentuation of the prevailing political economy.
Today there is no such trend in economic thinking. Rather than the programmes of New Dawn and Jobbik chiming with their respective governments, they are throwbacks to their inter war heroes: the dictators General Metaxas and Admiral Horthy. Of the two parties, Jobbik has gone to some lengths to update its image. Its website sets out, in impeccable English, a plan for an ‘eco-social national economy’ involving the promotion of Hungarian business in industry and agriculture. Criticism is made of the role of multinational capital but it is constrained – not a usual characteristic of fascist language. Rather than economic self-sufficiency, Jobbik favours an orientation to eastern globalisation – surprising given the positive Hungarian view of America through emigration and its anti-Russian stance. The presentation skills of Golden Dawn are less polished. Crude anti-Semitic cartoons accompany invective against finance and the EU. Agricultural self-sufficiency is evoked by talk of the soil upon which Hellenic blood has been shed. Interestingly, both parties envisage national expansion to realise their potential: Jobbik through a protected Carpathian economic zone encompassing Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries, New Dawn through the extraction of minerals under the Turkish Aegean Sea.
Now the policy of New Dawn and Jobbik (and others trying to emulate their success across Europe) is precisely part of their appeal: a strong government taking economic control to benefit nationals, in defiance of the banks, the EU, IMF etc. and their domestic lackeys. However, their ideological distance from traditional parties of the centre necessarily confines them to the margins. Nowhere in the 1930s did fascist parties win a majority of the vote. Power hinged on the collaboration of traditional ruling classes. The communist threat was key to this, but, as indicated, the wider rejection of laissez faire was also conducive.
It’s worth noting finally the record of New Dawn MPs since elected. Whilst castigating the New Democracy government for the betrayal of Greeks, they have voted for privatisation and have refused to support demands for higher wages for Greek workers replacing illegal immigrants. Fascism now as historically has never been opposed to capitalism per se, only certain forms of capitalism.