Opinion

The European Left at a crossroads

The crisis of the Left, a post-communist peculiarity until just a few years ago, has become critical all over Europe. If the Left wants to avoid returning to the 1930s and becoming insignificant in European political history in the coming decades it has to be thoroughly overhauled.
crossroads

Creeping unemployment, increasing inequality, a tumbling international currency system, Western democratic leaders weaponless against illiberal politics emerging throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and a clueless Left that can’t combat any of it: this snapshot  could have been taken either in 1931 or in 2016. The European political atmosphere is now strikingly reminiscent of the 1930s. Everyone knows the way it ended last time. Many have forgotten, though, that the rise of the far-right in the thirties was fuelled by the same economic disenchantment and hatred of the elite as today’s illiberalism. The national socialist and fascist right was able to grow where and when social democracy could not offer a political haven overriding social classes for voters frustrated by the crisis. This was one of several things that distinguished Sweden from Germany. The authoritarian political right builds on economic anger and wraps its messages in a cultural disguise to capitalize on class cleavages. Herein lies the root of the failure of today’s Left. Twenty years ago the elite of the Left thought that jumping on board the free market trend would allow them to outcompete the Right. This method has been proven a blunder of historic magnitude. The crisis of neoliberal capitalism has whipped up a political storm, and the Left may only emerge from it through a complete renewal and the revival of progressive, social democratic politics.

Fast Track from Poland

The economic shock following the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe launched the Left back into power in several countries within a few years in the early 1990s. The performance of Polish and Hungarian successor parties suggested that parties building on a mix of liberal modernization and social security might define history in the region for the several decades. However, a new era began with the fall of the Polish Left in 2005. This turning point was significant not just because Hungary’s successor party followed suit a few years later. Social protectionism blended with nationalism became the program of a post-liberal Right getting stronger across Europe. Similar to the radical Right of the 1930s, this new Right no longer favours the free market and individualism, but instead offers protection to select individuals against global volatilities through the authoritarian intervention of a powerful state. This political combination enabled the Kaczyński movement to consign the liberal Left to the dustbin of history. This political platform enabled Viktor Orbán to score his historic two-thirds majority in the following election. The struggle of the liberal modernizers against the nationalist “protectors of society” has become decisive in most of Eastern Europe, and increasingly so in the West as well.

Illiberalism in Czech politics has not yet become as dominant as in Poland or Hungary, but the situation is not all rosy once we scratch the surface. In the Czech Republic, paradoxically, the disenchantment with the process of transition has been channelled by the seemingly liberal and anti-corruption party of rising oligarch Andrej Babiš. As Czech Minister of Finance, Babiš is a more liberal entrepreneur than the national bourgeoisie teaming around Fidesz, which is also shown by the fact that he joined the liberal group of the European Parliament following the elections of 2014. However, his authoritarian tantrums and his tentacles of corruption squeezing the state ever tighter don’t give an especially good impression. After a breakthrough in 2008, the Slovene Social Democrats had collapsed by 2014, and the new Left, building on the 2012 protests against social woes, qualified for parliament with 6% of the votes. The Polish Razem, walking a similar path, did not pass the parliamentary threshold, although the collapse of the mainstream Polish Left will open a few doors for them as well.

The mainstream post-Communist Left is struggling for survival in Eastern Europe, while the new Left is… Click to Tweet

Enter Brexit

However, the steady decline of the Left has been going on for decades in Europe. Votes cast for social democratic parties in Western Europe show a constant downward trend. The referendum in the UK about EU-membership shed a new light on the crisis of the European left. What started off as David Cameron’s power play within his own party seemed like a shoo-in at the beginning. Almost the entire elite of the Western hemisphere was committed to the UK’s EU-membership. Brexit came as a shock, making it clear that the elite’s “business as usual” attitude had failed. Were it not for the murder of Jo Cox a few days prior to the referendum, Brexiteers might have scored an even more decisive victory. As UK politics stands today, one’s neighbour’s Facebook post is given greater weight than any statement from the ruling elite. A decade of bad government, austerity, growing inequality, the rampage of an unbridled financial sector and the housing crisis prompted an increasingly-large part of society to give a finger to the world’s rulers at the upcoming elections. This is how the UK’s EU-membership fell victim to anti-elitism.

David Cameron resigned after the referendum. With the Conservatives divided between the Remain and Exit camps many expected that the time had come for the return of Labour. However, the British Left is now light years away from power with Theresa May enjoying overwhelming popularity. The left-wing Scottish National Party has conquered Scotland for good. The Parliamentary Labour Party revolted against Corbyn while the media has been full of the party’s outrageous internal affairs. Should Corbyn be re-elected as leader, it remains an open question whether he can win the support of the party elite and the media, which are essential for success in the coming elections.

Staring into thin air

While the Left in the UK is in upheaval, other dominant social democratic parties on the continent are mostly staring into thin air, hoping that their own inertia will not irrevocably push them out of the history books. The German Social Democrats in government have no idea how to compete with Merkel’s inclusive conservatism. The pan-European policy of austerity, capitalizing on the myth of the “lazy Greeks”, enjoys endless popularity in Germany, leaving the Social Democrats entirely clueless. The question remains whether the German Greens or the German Left will ever be able to tackle the situation now that they have lost their historic sense of timing.

The French Socialist Party’s performance is probably even worse. According to recent surveys, the candidates of the French Right and radical Right could easily defeat Hollande as a result of helpless neo-liberal governance. The big question today is not the fate of the French socialists but whether Le Pen might become the next president of France.

A new Left from the peripheries

The old Left is thus in crisis everywhere across Europe while the new Left is still fighting for a foothold. The old Left, which was considered a novelty back in the nineties, thought it should follow in the footsteps of the Right after the neo-Conservative breakthrough and the end of the Cold War. “Whoever has a vision should go to the doctor”, proclaimed the pioneer of the technocratic liberal Left, Helmut Schmidt. Globalization unites the world under American leadership; the free movement of capital and goods will solve the problem of poverty. The Left of the nineties thought that unemployment might be tackled by dismantling social services, and that fostering competition among “lazy workers, accustomed to welfare” would improve labour “supply”. The nineties were spent in this liberal-technocratic spirit, and history seemed then to have “come to an end”.

In 2008, however, one of the largest crises capitalism has ever seen swept away the strongest financial institutions in the world and the technocratic-liberal dream in its wake.

This economically liberal left-wing stance is now on retrenchment throughout the world except for the United States, where the liberal coalition of minorities and the urban cosmopolitan elite appears to be enduring.

The 1999 demonstrations against the WTO Seattle summit indicated that some did not share the optimism of the nineties. A new generation had appeared, if only at the periphery of politics at that time. Industrial disintegration was their fundamental experience, be it a glass factory in rural Hungary or an automobile industry in Detroit. The political awareness of this generation was moulded by growing unemployment, increasing inequality, the housing crisis and a string of financial speculation crises. This is Generation Y, whose living standard is lower and whose vulnerability is more apparent in a number of countries than it was for Generation X, which produced the political elite of the nineties, and who grew up on the experience of boring material security.

The ideas represented by the demonstrators in Seattle and by a few dissenting intellectuals ten years ago became mainstream overnight as the 2008 crisis struck.

In some countries this momentum facilitated a breakthrough of the new Left that emerged as a political coalition of the Greens, the global justice movement and anti-austerity movements in the wake of the 2008 crisis. This new generation entered the political scene when Syriza defeated the technocratic socialists in Greece, or when Podemos ended the rule of the Spanish Social Democrats on the Spanish Left. This generation wants more from the Left than neoliberalism with a human face and cannot be satisfied with replacing the politics of material inequality with a cosmopolitan politics of cultural equalization.

This generation is aware that it would be suicidal for progressives to write off the working class, as suggested by several liberal pundits. The erosion of the working class base of the Left’s support does not derive from workers’ pre-destined nationalism. The experience of vulnerability, swept under the carpet for decades, stemming from neglect, social exclusion and being left behind has resulted in a frustration with the economy. This experience of vulnerability is responsible for the apathy and anger of the working class. Therefore the new Left fights for the recognition of identities and social equality simultaneously, as the two are inseparable.

Parties of the new Left are still trying to find their place, however, with their greatest enemy being not the ruling Right but the old left.

The old Left, striving to set an example for similar experiments, took an active role in defeating Syriza’s market-friendly social democratic crisis-management programme, at the same time doing nothing of similar effectiveness against governments demolishing democracy.

The parties of social democracy and the new Left face a strategic choice. Progressives have to reject both clueless resignation to right-wing hegemony as well as the sectarian dogmatism pushing a number of radical leftists over to the camp of those of who wish to end the European Union. This sectarianism ensures that the “pure” movement stays aloof as the eternal opposition, standing by and watching as the Right remains in power. 

If the Left gives up on the values of EU, solidarity and inclusion, nothing will distinguish it from the Right. Click to Tweet

If the Left wants to avoid returning to the 1930s and becoming insignificant in European political history in the coming decades it has to be thoroughly overhauled. Parties of the new Left, the Greens and the Social Democrats must fight together for a single, more democratic Europe of greater solidarity. The vulnerable middle class, clutching onto the security of identity, needs to be offered the politics of social security as an alternative. This requires thorough institutional reforms, brave initiatives such as universal basic income, and a new logic of political procedures. The encounter of the Greens and the new Left may give rise to a new political identity that might be able to restore the role of progressives on the political stage, dragging the paralyzed Social Democrats along. Much remains to be done to make this movement stronger. DiEM25, the movement launched by the former Minister of Finance of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, has set out to manufacture such a coalition.

The progressive movement, taking pride in its legacy of universal and equal suffrage, the elimination of child labour and universal social security, should not give up on the progressive transformation of the current order. Prehistoric man ate the mammoth, after all, bit by bit.

Gábor Scheiring

Gábor Scheiring is a former Hungarian MP, currently a research associate at the University of Cambridge, doing research on the political economy of post-socialist mortality and on democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe. He is the chairman of the Progressive Hungary Foundation, a think tank dedicated to progressive policy research and public education.

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Gábor Scheiring
Gábor Scheiring is a former Hungarian MP, currently a research associate at the University of Cambridge, doing research on the political economy of post-socialist mortality and on democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe. He is the chairman of the Progressive Hungary Foundation, a think tank dedicated to progressive policy research and public education.

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