The Noteworthy Weakness Of Political ‘Extremism’

Despite very bleak economic conditions in many countries around the world, extremist political movements are arguably noteworthy for their weakness.

For some time now, we have heard that the eurozone crisis will lead to mass social unrest and a rise in extremist parties, with some commentators warning of a return to 1930s-style political conditions. Certainly, it is very ominous that youth unemployment is around 50% in Spain and Greece, and it is true that we have seen mass protests against austerity in several European countries. It is also true that some anti-establishment parties, such as Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement in Italy, have made strong gains.

Nonetheless, in all European countries, mainstream political parties remain the dominant political forces.

Considering the present economic backdrop, Europe remains relatively peaceful. For example, there has not been a return to 1970s-style urban terrorism in Europe. (The Norway massacres of 2011 appear to be an exception.) Labour unrest has also been relatively contained. Furthermore, assassinations are very rare.

What explains this? One part of the reason is that the youth bracket (age 15-24) represents a diminishing proportion of the population in most European countries, most of which are ageing rapidly. Second, many unemployed people are working in the shadow economy, suggesting that headline jobless figures may exaggerate the true social picture. Third, people are generally far better off in material terms than they were in the 1930s. And fourth, there is an absence of ideological clarity in many of the ‘extreme’ political parties or movements that have emerged. Being ‘against the system’ must be complemented with a well articulated alternative vision. Voters in many European countries may be too cynical to believe in credible alternative parties and their ability to win power.

Perhaps if present economic conditions in Europe worsen or fail to improve over the next few years, then we will see greater radicalism, but for now it would appear that establishment forces have the upper hand.

Arab Spring Demonstrated Potency Of Discontent

Of course, we have witnessed tremendous upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa over the past two years, including terrible civil wars in Libya and Syria, and a deterioration of the state in Yemen. Yet so far, in the countries where we have not seen civil war, such as Egypt and Tunisia, we have not seen anything comparable to the 1979 Iranian Revolution in terms of ideological extremist fervour and purges. Iran itself has avoided a counter-revolution despite a collapsing currency and deteriorating economy brought about by UN sanctions. Further east, Pakistan has avoided systemic change despite having all the ingredients for a state collapse.

In Japan, two lost decades and the worst natural disaster since the 1920s did not foster extremism. It is true that a new third force made gains in the last election, but the biggest winner was the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan for 54 years.

China Is The Biggest Unknown

China is perhaps the biggest unknown. Despite a sharp economic slowdown, not to mention rising inequality, public anger about environmental pollution and corruption, and a host of other issues, the Communist Party of China (CPC) remains entrenched in power. Given the mass upheaval seen in China in previous decades, and clear memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, many Chinese are presumably unwilling to jeopardise more than 30 years of rapid economic growth with a concerted effort to oust the CPC. Nevertheless, it would be unusual if China does not move towards greater political liberalisation before this decade is out.

Known Unknowns

Overall, with the exception of the Taliban in Afghanistan, various Islamist militant groups in Africa and the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, there are no truly anti-systemic political forces in power or close to coming to power in any major country.

Yet, precisely because of this seeming ‘absence’, we must be vigilant. Extremist politicians rose to power surprisingly quickly in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1980s; the apocalyptic Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo seemed to come out of nowhere in 1995 when it gassed the Tokyo metro; and hardly anyone was paying attention to an international terrorist group called al-Qaeda on September 10, 2001.