Certain historic patterns rarely fail to help explain contemporary events. Political extremist groups tend to foment in poor economic conditions, while progressive and equitable wealth accumulation tends to dampen such tensions. It was poor economic management that led to the Boxer Rebellion in China,. Poor economic conditions also led to the rise of various extremist groups rising in late-modern South Asia, including a resurgent Taliban, while similar economic deprecation is what helped Al-Qaeda to turn into Daesh in Iraq. Economic disparities have caused conflicts in Sudan pinning separatists against the government and now this same phenomenon of economic mismanagement has resulted in rejuvenated far-right extremist groups in some Europe and parts of the United States.
Of course certain groups like the Taliban and Daesh had external assistance in forming, but in order to galvanise even a modest base, there has to been an underlying economic grievance ripe for exploitation. When it comes to the so-called Alt-Right in the US or parallel far-right groups in Europe including Generation Identity, Pegida or Britain First, there is a common thread. Groups whose forbearers had been agitating for decades, but without a great deal of support, have become more popular and consequently more visible in very recent years.
The rise of these groups has been commensurate with the neo-liberal austerity policies enacted throughout Europe in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 financial crisis. Likewise, the continued decline of America’s once well paid industrial employment base has led to a rise in the prominence of once obscure so-called ‘white nationalist’ and neo-Nazi groups.
Many solutions have been proposed in order to stem the tide of the far right. Some of the most ridiculous proposals include criminalising certain kinds free speech. Ironically, it is the stiffing of free speech that has been an infamous tool of the far-right when they manage to get into power. Other well meaning but ultimately absurd proposals include various re-education programmes, but this too fails to understand the underlying root cause of political extremism.
After the US toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003, many ordinary Sunni Iraqis who previously were not particularly ideologically motivated in any one direction, became seduced by Al-Qaeda as a means of protecting themselves against a US occupier that commenced a so-called “De-Ba’athification programme”, which in reality meant a total disenfranchisement of the country’s Sunni minority. Such people wanted protection from exploitation and as a result, they ended up allowing a dangerous terror group to foment in their midst. Had the US invasion never happened, there would be no Al-Qaeda or Daesh in Iraq today. It was the economic disenfranchisement caused by the war that led otherwise neutral individuals to political extremism.
Along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, it was decades of US meddling which led many individuals to flock to extremist groups like the Taliban. If their lives were unmolested and if previous governments in the region invested more wisely in such areas, one would have never had the problems that came as a result of the poverty which becomes rife as a result of foreign war. This has been a central message in the current campaigns of both the progressive Pakistan People’s Party and the progressive/populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
In Europe, during the economic boom of the early 2000s, few young people had any interest in joining far right political groups. Likewise, the economic stability of the era witnessed the penultimate end to some of the far-left groups which existed in Europe during the 70s and 80s.
Today though, with European youth unemployment continuing to be a problem in many countries, with jobs paying less and being less stable for people of all ages and with the price of housing and consumer goods continuing to rise, people are angry. This anger could lead them to any form of extremism. Because far-right groups had an existing organisational infrastructure ready and waiting for such a surge in popular anger, it became inevitable that such angry people would flock to extremists promising to solve economic problems through ideological and sectarian politics.
There is only one way to make extremism go away and that is to make the economy work for the majority of people in any given political jurisdiction. For individual European countries, the EU as a whole and the United States, this means more investment in job creating industries and furthermore, it means creating a system whereby national industries work to generate wealth for the nation as a whole.
Put simply, the west needs a variety of Deng Xiaoping’s market socialism with local characteristics. The success of market socialism rests on the fact that while it encourages innovation, entrepreneurship and investment, it also regulates the direction in which the profits go. In China, the profits derived from major industries are re-invested back into the national economy in areas as wide ranging as infrastructure, hosing, health, education, culture and scientific research. There is no reason why the US and EU couldn’t take this model and adapt it to local economic and sociological conditions.
There is another difference though. In China, hard work is not considered an unpleasant activity, it is considered a way of life. A purely capitalist system encourages a perverse mix of greed and entitlement, just as sure as many far-left economic systems discourage innovation and experimentation. market socialism gives a society the best of both worlds all while generating wealth which is the most effective antidote to any kind of political or social extremism. Thus, if anything, the kind of re-education that is needed in the west shouldn’t be concerned with ‘fighting ideology’ but instead, it should be concerned with fighting an attitude of entitlement and lethargy that has seen the west fall behind East Asia and much of South East Asia in terms of both productivity and educational standards.
Corrupt western bureaucracies are quick to throw money at fellow bureaucrats and even more worryingly, towards the military-industrial complex. If this attitude could be transposed into investing in civilian infrastructure, job creation and other initiatives to improve living standards, one would see that there would be fewer and fewer people going to alt-right and far-right rallies in the west. They would be too busy working or spending money to care about such inflammatory things. Here lies the solution and thus one sees that the problem of the far right can be equally blamed on economically inept politicians, in addition to the inflammatory politics of far-right leaders themselves.
Deng Xiaoping once said “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. Given the racist overtones of far-right rhetoric in the US and EU, Deng’s quote has not only aged well but it is more apposite than ever.