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     Nov 10, 2010

Rise of far right an ominous echo
By Ritt Goldstein

Whether in Europe's ultra-nationalistic parties (a portion possessing either explicit neo-Nazi or neo-Fascist roots), or in the United States' most reactionary political groups, the West is seeing a rise of the far right not witnessed since the 1930s. At that time, the 1930's Great Depression had fueled far-right popular movements, and today's so-called Great Recession appears to be doing something similar.

"You can say that there is something between the emergence of a radical right populist party and economic downturns," observed

Cristian Norocel, a political scientist at both Sweden's Stockholm University and Finland's University of Helsinki. Speaking on the rise of Sweden's far-right Swedish Democrats (SD), a party with neo-Nazi roots that recently won 20 seats in parliament, Norocel saw similarities to aspects of "very early National Socialism [Nazism]".

Policies recalling German National Socialism "at the end of the 1920s, the beginning of the 1930s" were what Norocel specifically referred to, although today's SD has renounced violence. Underscoring reason for concern, Norocel told Asia Times Online in a quietly determined voice that "the thing that is worrisome is that the SD party platform appears to be very successful".

In the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, France, Austria, Sweden, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Switzerland, and more, the far right is on the rise, making it to national legislatures and prominence in a number of countries. On November 2, a CNN headline announced: "UK far-right group boasts Tea Party links".

The twin 1930s nightmares of Nazism and Fascism descended from the European social and economic turmoil following World War One, their development accelerating with the economic pain and uncertainty the Great Depression amply provided. Widespread popular anger and frustration with the systemic failures of that period's political and economic establishment was channeled against societal outgroups, such unfortunates then providing convenient scapegoats for these movements to rise upon. Today, many think the West's widespread embrace of neo-liberal policies, its decades of "economic reform", have too often meant that similar financial hardship has again impacted substantial numbers, with many of these eager to blame someone for their pain.

Perceiving the far right as a symptom of a societal disorder, one could argue that its renaissance today is again the product of failed economic and political policies. These failures are spawning economic and social upheaval similar to that which created the first nightmare brought by the far right.

"Sadly, much of the resentment that should be directed toward corporations that outsource jobs or flee the country tends to get directed toward trade unions, immigrants and members of ethnic minorities. Or government gets blamed for taxing people excessively," observed psychologist Daniel Burston, a well-known author of papers and books on the social psychology of the 1930s, and also chair of Duquesne University's Psychology Department.

Burston added for Asia Times Online that too often, those profiting from the present circumstances invest "massive wealth to stoke the fires of misdirected rage through media advertising and misinformation and by buying the favors of politicians to insure they pass laws enabling them to continue their predatory practices."

Burston interprets the result as "a population seething with rage and mistrust that wants to hold someone accountable for its suffering, but often targets the wrong people".

In the 1930s, Europe's Jews became such a target, history demonstrating what eventually occurred. Today, it is often Muslims that fill this tragic void, with homosexuals, Roma and other minorities similarly targeted now as they were then. In some areas where there is a limited Islamic presence, Jews have again been scapegoated (ie, Hungary). And even in the US, today's "immigration debate", particularly as it surrounds Mexican and Mexican-American communities, also has its parallels.

During what was known as the "Mexican Repatriation" of the 1930s, approximately a half million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were effectively forced from the US, with most of these reportedly being US citizens. "It was a racial removal program," said Mae Ngai, an immigration-history expert at the University of Chicago, in a 2006 news article in USA Today.

In Sweden, the SD demands an end to "multiculturalism", an end to "public support for immigrant organizations", and an end to "all other activities aimed at promoting foreign cultures and identities in Sweden". They also want to outlaw "religious buildings with a non-Swedish building style or strange architecture", forbid public workers from wearing "conspicuous religious or political symbols, such as a headscarf or turban", and they call for the government to support immigrants who wish to "voluntarily" return to their homelands.

In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) is the country's third-largest party, and is accused of being "fascist" and "anti-Semitic". In an April 2010 news article, "Anti-Semitism stirs as Hungary goes to polls", London's Sunday Times detailed broad attacks on the Jewish community, how a mob at a political rally chanted "Jewish pigs" and "to the concentration camps", and how bumper stickers proclaiming "Jew-free car" have become popular. The article also mentions unrelated violence against, and even the murder of, Roma.

In France, the deportation of Roma has been the source of European Union censure, with Italy also pursuing a campaign of forced Roma expulsions from many key cities. A November 5 report in the Financial Times noted that the Silvio Berlusconi government has proposed a new law, which critics claim is aimed at deporting Roma from the country. Also in parallel with the 1930s, anti-gay violence in Serbia has been widespread, and even the US has witnessed a noteworthy increase.

"US shaken by sudden surge of violence against gay people," read the October 17 headline from Britain's Observer. Scapegoating of "outgroups" for our societal shortcomings is on the rise along with the far right.

Globalization, the Great Recession and "economic reform" have severely impacted populations on both sides of the Atlantic. With this, a pervasive anger, as well as a mistrust of the established political and social structure, has grown in a number of countries. The rise of America's Tea Party is one reaction to this, with the broad far-right renaissance being a significantly more troubling consequence.

"In periods where people feel threatened and mistrustful, they're more receptive to distortions, half-truths, and lies," psychologist Burston said. He also observed that in such times, when people are very receptive to propaganda, most "simply aren't going to reflect deeply on the claims that are being made by their leaders, or the consequences that appear to follow. Adolf Hitler was well aware of this".

In Sweden, a country that consistently scores among the top few in terms of international ratings of societal quality, the rise of the SD to parliament came as a rude awakening for some. With Sweden long considered a bastion of liberal democracy, tolerance and propriety, the success of a party widely considered racist and xenophobic has prompted soul searching among Swedes.

Given Sweden's position as a leading Western state, an examination of its far right's rise suggests broader trends, though the roots of the far right's current renaissance certainly extend beyond parties with Nazi or Fascist heritage. But the fact of the SD’s popularity, and the factors behind it, has undeniably challenged the image Sweden has long held of itself.

Reviewing the positions that brought the SD to 20 seats in Sweden's parliament highlights the growth of some disturbing trends.

The SD blamed immigrants for painful cuts in social benefits, conveniently omitting the fact that substantial tax cuts and privatizations had effectively forced the benefit reductions. Addressing Sweden's sizable Muslim minority (approximately 400,000 among 9 million Swedes), the SD referred to Islam as the greatest threat Sweden has faced "since WWII", with a local SD leader even making headlines by claiming that many from the Middle East had a "gene" that makes them more violent.

The SD also released highly debated statistical reports suggesting that new immigrants (mostly from the Middle East) were responsible for a disproportionate share of serious crime. And in Sweden's third-largest city, Malmo (one of the SD's strongholds), there have been 15 immigrants randomly shot over the past year.

Until 2001, Nazi uniforms and swastikas could be seen at SD meetings, though today the SD claims it is a "normal party", and has even attracted a strong following from Swedish pensioners, a group hard hit by benefit cuts.

Currently, Sweden's economy is growing at over four times the European Union average, but with recent "economic and social reforms", this is a prosperity not everyone shares in. Political scientist Norocel sees the far right's rise as representing "an outcry of people who felt they were forgotten by the mainstream".

Norocel also referred to the SD as a "wolf in a sheep's skin", "a crypto-racist party with a tainted past presenting itself in "normal' clothes".

Gustav Fridolin, a high-profile Green member of Sweden's parliament, told Asia Times Online that Sweden "is torn by high unemployment and growing poverty", and he sees a sense of "powerlessness" among many, a point where "faith in the future is breaking down". He postulated that such circumstances mean "you can win political sympathies by one of two alternatives: either you turn groups against each other, or you turn to the hope that people carry".

Independently, psychologist Burston said that the middle class felt "increasingly vulnerable and confused, fearful". He stressed that much of this fear was for the future, "one’s children and grandchildren", with many in the middle class "having lost faith that it can even hope to change what's going on in its own society", obscuring the view most had of "the fundamental meaning of democratic norms and practices".

Burston sees current times as leaving many "overwhelmed by their misery and confusion", and so lacking the "peace and presence of mind to reflect". Under such circumstances, he noted individuals often "want to be told what's going on, they don't want to find out for themselves".

Unfortunately, it's infinitely easier to blame those that one considers "outsiders" to ones society for any problems, particularly rather than actually acknowledging and addressing any severe internal shortcomings. In the SD's case, Norocel noted that the party appeared "very skilful at picturing a scapegoat".

Separately, Burston broached the concept of "otherization".

Otherization is essentially a psychological phenomenon where you fail "to recognize the fundamental humanity of your counterpart", Burston said, an ominous tone apparent in his voice. Explaining how this phenomenon impacted societal outgroups in the current circumstances, he noted that "the other is no longer simply a stranger, but an adversary".

In Swedish, there is a term which has long been used to describe political parties of the far right: "framlingsfientligt parti". If translated literally, this means "stranger hostility", though it is often simply translated as "xenophobia".

Typically benefiting from the rage of a declining and newly impoverished middle-class, the far right has a history of rising in such moments "because they offer simplistic answers for exceedingly complex problems, and have developed effective rhetorical strategies to motivate people to vote against their own long-term interests", Burston added. He noted that "they [the far right] appeal to people's sense of betrayal and victimization", but doing so in a manner avoiding "the real social and economic processes that left them vulnerable".

Agneta Borjesson, general secretary of the Swedish Greens, noted that while the SD will "list immigration", the real problems lie elsewhere. "The problems with schools, the problems with jobs moving abroad, the problems that are actually the real problems," she saw the SD as ignoring.

Swedish member of parliament Fridolin sees an answer in refocusing the political agenda towards "where the jobs of the future will be created, and how we can build a new society that is growing together", not apart. Such thoughts dovetail with concerns regarding the "offshoring of jobs" and the increasing pressures that neo-liberal policies have brought.

A pattern of false blame, and the scapegoating it encourages, has been the traditional wedge the far right utilizes to pry support from the political mainstream. A common denominator the far right shares is its antipathy to immigrants and immigration.

"Wherever you look in Europe where they have these far-right political parties, they tend to blame immigration for all sorts of problems," said political scientist Mikael Sundstrom of Lund University in Sweden. Providing commentary on the willingness of distressed populations to accept "distortions, half-truths, and lies", Sundstrom noted that all the SD has to do with its alleged "truth" is "put it out there, and people will pick it up".

"The memory of the Second World War, and the '30s leading up to that war, has been fading", observed Sundstrom. With this, he noted that the far right is simply "not as shunned as it used to be", the bitter lessons of our past being forgotten.

As to part of what that means, Sundstrom emphasized that if the far right can rise in Sweden, "it can happen anywhere".

Fading memories of the far right's first rise appear to have helped allow such groups a new beginning, but some believe that with such a crisis comes opportunity. Sounding a note of optimism, political scientist Norocel sees events as a chance for "a return to roots and closer contact between voters and elected politicians", and to narrow the growing disparities that today's "capitalism (globalization, indiscriminate privatization, dismantling of welfare) has given birth to."

Father Bob Bossie, SCJ, is a member of Chicago's 8th Day Center for Justice, a Catholic faith-based non-governmental organization for social change. A few years ago, Bossie visited the site of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. He put his thoughts on the current far-right rise in that context, conveying an important aspect of what appears before us.

"The influence today of the far right on our body politic brings to mind a troubling memory of several years past. As I walked amid the displays of the death camp Auschwitz one cold January morning, I realized that the people involved in that unspeakable crime were not so different from myself or anyone else. They made compromises, small ones at first - to maintain their social relations, to keep their jobs - until they 'crossed the line'. At that moment, I prayed to God that I would have the courage to speak up when faced with similar choices, despite the consequences to myself."

Ritt Goldstein is an investigative political journalist whose work has appeared widely in the global media, including in the US Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Austria's Wiener Zeitung and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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