First, Martin Wolf becomes a Keynesian and now Gideon Rachman is turning Marxist. In today's column, he essentially argues that we are seeing a replay of the 1930s, but this time as a farce, not a tragedy. In light of the Italian elections, he argues that the voters of the European crisis countries are turning to clowns rather than fascists. This, he says, is good because they're more entertaining, less brutal, and ultimately also quite responsible. The reason, he says, is that Europe is much richer today. Therefore, the pain inflicted by the crisis is not quite the same as in the 1930s.
It is refreshing to see someone arguing that it's not the 1930s all over again. And it would, indeed, be very difficult to argue that Grillo is the new Brüning. Some journalists have compared him with Mussolini, but that's not very apt either. And not only because of the hair.
However, there are some problems with Rachman's argument. First, there is the problem of evidence. He's basing his argument on Grillo's success and the election of a comedian as major of Reykjavik. But two comedians don't make a trend. He is right to say that there has been no significant rise in neo-fascist movements. Even in Greece this has remained a limited phenomenon. But we have seen another phenomenon that is quite pre-occupying: the re-emergence of nationalism, often with chauvinistic overtones. There is much anti-German sentiment, even in mainstream politics, in the European periphery. At the same time, a dangerous mix of arrogance and fear is prompting mainstream politicians in Germany and elsewhere in the European centre to play on deeply ingrained prejudices against southern Europeans. This is not neo-fascism, but nationalism can be destructive enough on its own.
There is another problem: Rachman seems to believe that it was misery that swept Hitler and Mussolini to power. But that is only partly true. The fascist movements on the 1930s were essentially petit-bourgeois movements. People who were hanging on to their 'bourgeois' status by the skin of their teeth and who were fearing to be 'declassed' as a result of the crisis were the driving force behind fascism. In contrast, fascist movements found it much harder to tap into the working class vote. The unemployed often voted communist. What mattered was not poverty per se, but fear of a relative loss of economic and social status. And this mechanism can apply at any level of wealth. Also in today's comparably much wealthier societies.
Finally, Rachman argues that clowns are not that bad because ultimately they behave reasonably once they're in power. What is his evidence for that? When Grillo's people took charge in Parma they began to cut public spending and the stand up comedian who became major of Reykjavik began to fire municipal employees. Is that the new litmus test for reasonableness? I think, Rachman needs to start reading his colleagues columns about austerity.