March 4, 2013 6:45 pm

Euro crisis is breeding comics not fascists

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Times may be tough but this is not the 1930s. Modern Europe is a richer, less traumatised continent
Ingram Pinn illustration©Ingram Pinn

Some months ago, I was discussing the euro crisis with a high-ranking US diplomat. “It’s back to the 1930s, isn’t it?” said my companion with a mixture of gloom and relish. “The extremists are on the rise.”

After the Italian elections, these doom-laden predictions are redoubling. The Spectator, a British magazine, has labelled Beppe Grillo as “Italy’s new Mussolini”. Even some Italian commentators have made the same comparison.

That is not just unfair on Mr Grillo, a comedian whose Five Star Movement has just scooped up 25 per cent of the vote. It is also a misreading of how European politics are likely to develop, under conditions of economic stress. The temptation is to argue that because the Depression of the 1930s led to the rise of fascists and communists, the current economic crisis will provoke a similar flight to the far right and the far left.

There are a few similarities between Europe then and now. As in the 1930s, a financial crash, followed by austerity policies, has led to high unemployment. Once again, new political movements are springing up that heap scorn on the governing class. But dig a little deeper and the comparisons seem superficial. When the Depression arrived in Europe, only 12 years had passed since the continent had suffered the horrors of the first world war. About 40 per cent of French and German men aged 19-21 in 1914 were killed in the next four years. Italy also suffered terrible casualties. Overall, more than 10m soldiers died in Europe. Millions more were mutilated.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were both veterans of the war and the movements they led were profoundly shaped by it. Mussolini took power in the 1920s, before the Depression even hit Europe. When it got under way in the 1930s, Europe was ill-prepared. Welfare states were vestigial, so unemployment often spelt destitution and hunger.

By contrast, modern Europe is a much richer and less traumatised continent. Of course, times are tough in countries such as Portugal, where wages and pensions have been cut. Unemployment is high across the eurozone and many people fear for the future. But this is not the 1930s.

The country that looks closest to producing 1930s-style politics is Greece, whose economy has suffered the deepest contraction of any in Europe – shrinking by 25 per cent. That has led to the rise of Golden Dawn, a far-right party that flirts with fascist themes, from ultranationalism to anti-semitism. Golden Dawn is currently at about 10 per cent in the polls and the far-left Syriza party came a close second in the last election. But, for now, an unpopular centrist government continues to hold power.

What is striking about Greece, moreover, is that it remains exceptional in contemporary Europe. If you look at the rest of the continent, the far right and the far left have not yet made dramatic headway – even in countries such as Portugal, Italy and Spain, whose economies are suffering badly.

In Spain, where youth unemployment is now higher than 50 per cent, the big new political development is the rise of Catalan nationalism. This is a serious phenomenon that threatens the unity of the country. But it is not to be confused with a resurgence of Francoism or the anarchist movements of the 1930s.

Italy’s regional separatists, the Northern League, emerged well before the economic crisis but did badly in the most recent election. The new force in Italian politics is Mr Grillo and his movement – whose political style is very different from that of the Italian fascists. Mussolini was militaristic and bombastic. Mr Grillo uses humour and informality as his trademarks. It is true that he ridicules the Italian parliament and political class. But he has never rejected democracy as a system.

In fact, modern Europeans seem more likely to react to bad times by voting for a comedian than for a fascist. Mr Grillo is not an isolated example. In Iceland, whose economy was devastated by a financial crisis, the voters elected Jon Gnarr, a stand-up comic, as the mayor of Reykjavik, the capital. Mr Gnarr’s political pledges included a drug-free parliament within a decade.

A comic’s ability to combine anger and humour works politically, when things look bleak. Comedians can also make unconventional proposals that subvert the pomposity of politics as usual. Mr Grillo has promised to slash the pay of politicians, make the internet faster and create more bicycle lanes.

The difficulty for politicians who make their breakthroughs as truth-telling clowns is that actually wielding power presents them with some distinctly unfunny choices. That may be partly why Mr Grillo is currently rejecting all overtures to form a coalition government.

Where his Five Star Movement has gained power at the local level, it has governed pragmatically. In Parma, Mr Grillo’s followers found themselves in charge of a city that was hugely in hock. They responded by refinancing the debt and pushing through spending cuts. Similarly, in Reykjavik, the comedy mayor has had to cut jobs and raise taxes.

By contrast, Mr Grillo’s proposals for Italy’s national economic crisis hint at much more radical policies. He has talked of stopping payments on Italy’s huge national debt – and flirted with the idea of Italy leaving the euro. Most mainstream politicians treat these ideas as a bad joke. But, unless they can find a way forward that looks more attractive than another five years of austerity, Mr Grillo and his imitators could have the last laugh in Italy.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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