This year’s question: “In some Western countries, right-wing populism has been able to channel much of the anger caused by the financial crisis and its effect. Why has the Left been marginalized? How can this be overcome?”

Preparing the ground:
Left strategy beyond the apocalypse

Richard Swift

It is a deeply ingrained article of faith on the Left that a serious economic crisis provides political opportunities to challenge and maybe even overthrow the system. This belief in the radical potential of crises is deeply ingrained, despite a long history of critical literature debunking or at least showing the political limits of much ‘crisis theory’. Such literature makes the case that not only is capitalism remarkably resilient but that it uses such crises (natural as well as economic) to reinvent itself and open new avenues of profit. The economist Joseph Schumpeter’s legendary phrase about capitalism’s capacity for ‘creative destruction’ underlines this point.

Still, there is a certain logic to the idea that, when hedge-fund managers and bank executives cause speculative bubbles and make outrageous bonuses while at the same time creating economic instability that costs people their homes and jobs, popular disgust should ensue. Yet the economic crises since 2008 have not led to much in the way of gains by either the electoral or the popular Left in OECD countries. On the contrary, there have been conservative electoral successes in many countries (the UK, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Canada) and the rise of populist movements that are anti-immigrant (Europe) or anti-tax (North America). The Right seems at least as likely as the Left to benefit from chronic destabilizing crisis. What gives?

There are many answers to this question. Some have to do with the unpromising terrain on which the battles have been fought; others with miscalculation of the nature of populist movements and their appeal. But a central problem involves the way the Left has evolved in the post-Soviet period. It has split itself between a kind of tame Centre-Left mainstream and an extra-parliamentary movement that rallies around single issues and identity politics, usually within an overriding framework of anti-globalization.

Two Lefts

These two strains exist, by and large, in separate universes. The anti-globalization movement is heavily counter-cultural and militant but detached from and in opposition to the mainstream political culture. It is widely vilified by the media and mostly speaks to its own youth and minoritarian constituencies using its own media, particularly new technologies. It organizes around local projects as a basis for confronting repressive state policies such as cutbacks, pro-developer planning, fiscal manipulations and the assault on the economic and political rights of the marginalized. It comes together for major confrontations with the authorities (at times bringing tens of thousands into the street) to protest the major events on the calendar of the international political class—the G8, G20, the WTO, Davos, and the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF. It also comes together in the Social Summit movement born under the tutelage of the local Brazilian Workers Party in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. Today, such summits move around the globe and have regional variations on most continents.

It is fair to say that the political orientation of this movement is anarchist, as seen in both its practical politics and its theory. On the streets and in the communities, it is a politics of anti-statist refusal—suspicious of any collaboration that could undermine (or integrate) the oppositional integrity of its politics. In confrontations, the anarchism appears most dramatically in the militant tactics of the ubiquitous Black Bloc, which engages in violent confrontation with police and low-level sabotage such as car-burning or window-breaking. This is not anarchism in the classical tradition but a kind of constantly recreated anti-authoritarian politics, drawing urgency from a sense that the human species is approaching a point of no return if the gospel of growth and domination continues. The mainstream, particularly since the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, has treated the extra-parliamentary Left as a kind of low-level terrorist threat.

This Left beyond professional politics has to be credited with keeping the dream alive. Its activists have been able to sustain the idea that there is a coherent alternative to the global market and its winner-takes-all ethos. The mainstream Left no longer believes in such an alternative and restricts itself to humanizing the worst ravages of the system. But the anti-globalization Left has evolved as a kind of ghetto politics cut off from the mainstream of the societies from which it arises. In this way it is not dissimilar to the counter-cultural New Left of the 1960s. This is partly the result of a kind of gap that manifests itself in everyday culture: dress, sexuality, music, food, habits of living, choice of drugs, concentration in particular neighbourhoods and so on. While such a gap is far from absolute, it is influential enough to curtail the movement’s popular sway. Elements of the movement can play into this through a rigid sectarianism used as ‘protection’ from the corrosive influence of mainstream culture. Tactics, too, can alienate those who feel insecure about their livelihoods. This can manifest itself, for example, in a lack of sensitivity in dealing with a whole range of workers whose incomes are tied to militarism and the carbon economy. Violence is also a key issue that scares off the confused and the fearful. These problems need to be much better thought through rather than dismissed as part of the ‘diversity of tactics’ argument that presently short-circuits debate in the movement.

The current Occupy movement can be seen as an extension of the anti-globalization movement. It is, in some ways, an advance on that movement in that it speaks more directly to the concerns of workers and middle-income people over the insecurities in their lives created by speculative finance. This is reflected in transnational polling that sees significant majorities of people sharing a sympathy with the Occupy protests. But the tactic of ‘occupying’ has a limited shelf life due to both participant and observer weariness and state repression. So today Occupy stands at a crossroads. Can it localize protests so it can draw strength by embedding itself in different communities? Can it move beyond a symbolic politics of outrage (the politics of anger at which the Right excels) to a coherent set of proposals for making people’s lives better? Can it overcome the fragmentation of issues (familiar to anyone who has attended Occupy protests) to focus public unease on such proposals?

Whatever the internal issues, the main reason for the ghettoization of the anti-globalization and Occupy resistance is the way it is framed by the media establishments of the various countries in which it operates. Some of this is ideologically inspired by the Murdoch world and its various clones. Elsewhere, it is lazy media scripts and frames that have been built into journalistic practice and portray resistance cultures as variously weird and deviant, threatening or amusingly esoteric. The notion of ‘political correctness’, promoted by media punditry, leads to a series of code words used to reinforce stereotypes of ‘pie-in-the-sky’, ‘impractical’ and ‘dangerously idealistic’ proposals that endanger ‘our way of life’. The use of low-level street violence by the movement is easily manipulated in the era of the ‘war on terror’ to strengthen the ghettoization of radical opposition.

It is hard to overestimate the political cost of this ghettoization. Potential constituencies for radical solutions are definitely growing: those who lose jobs and homes; those victimized by cutbacks in the publicly financed security net; those looking forward to unpromising lives or a dismal old age; parents who witness public education systems deteriorating; those shocked by the plunder at the top or alienated by the prostitution of public power to corruption and wealth. But such groups are easily pushed away from radical solutions by this ghettoization. Instead, they embrace the diverting solutions of the populist Right—anti-tax, anti-politics, anti-immigrant—or fall into a cynical apathy. The young, particularly males from poor and minority communities, may join street gangs that provide a pseudo-identity channelling resistance into street crime. Such gangs have grown exponentially, particularly in the most unequal of societies (the US, South Africa and Brazil are good examples).

The Centre-Left, in the meantime, in a desperate search for respectability and a share of power, has moved into the centre of the mainstream consensus. Such a consensus involves commitments to all the basic premises of the neoliberal order as it tries to ‘manage’ its way out of the crisis:

1) Prop up the banks and other economic predators who blew up the speculative bubbles that resulted in the 2008 financial meltdown;

2) Recast the fiscal structure of the state to pay down debt at the cost of social provision; and

3) Allow free rein to the coercive apparatus in the face of street resistance.

Both democracy and the welfare state are sacrificed in this process. This is perhaps most visible in Greece, where restructuring is being presided over by the Centre-Left PASOK party of the Papandreou clan. Resistance has been particularly fierce in Greece but this cycle of resistance and repression shows signs of spilling over into other debt-challenged economies such as those of Ireland and Spain (where the austerity regime is also presided over by the Centre-Left). Here is a potential source of both danger and hope. So far this resistance speaks the language and exhibits the values of the Left. But, with frustration and capitulation by the Left political class, this could shift.

The process of taking over responsibility for managing the crisis has taken different forms, depending on the political balance of forces and the electoral system that prevails. In Anglo-Saxon first-past-the-post systems, social democratic and left-liberal parties are transforming themselves into the ‘responsible’ option: managers of the system trying to distinguish themselves as a more ‘balanced’ alternative for administering the post-collapse austerity regime. Their values have become those of fiscal prudence and good taxpayer value, all within the context of some vague notion of ‘fairness’. In this camp we find New Labour in the UK, the New Democratic Party in Canada and the Australian Labor Party.

In proportional representation systems, this more frequently takes the form of a coalition politics of the Centre-Left, sometimes including Greens and various remnants of the former Communist Parties who ally themselves with more conventional mainstream parties. Italy’s Olive Tree coalition is a good example. They strive to distinguish themselves from their Centre-Right opponents with whom they rotate in and out of office. The distinction between Right and Left becomes ever more blurred for alienated voters who sense that something fundamental is wrong and needs changing—although they are not sure quite what.

Hollowing out democracy

The Left of professional politicians has become, in the eyes of much of the public, simply part of the establishment. Its language is often virtually indistinguishable from its rightwing rivals—austerity, balanced budgets, national security, the family, law and order. Its attempts to distinguish itself are dictated more by the daily news cycle than by any programmatic anchor. There is a perpetual search for a ‘gotcha’ moment that reveals the hypocrisies, double-dealing or, better still, corruption of opponents. It has ceased trying to lay the groundwork for any notion of a different society based on different values. The politics of personality and celebrity hold sway as it searches for that magic leadership personality with the charisma to win the popularity sweepstakes. This reflects internal changes within the mainstream electoral Left where the party membership—in conventions, in trade union affiliates, and even in the caucus of elected representatives—has less and less say over either party or government policy. In their place has grown up an inner circle that surrounds the leader—pollsters, advisors, key cabinet members, political consultants of all stripes—who provide insulation from popular pressure.

These changes go hand-in-hand with other long-standing tendencies in the political systems of ‘advanced’ societies. There has been an increasing centralization of power in the executive branch that plays itself out, whether in a parliamentary or a presidential system. The tendency towards a kind of ‘elected’ court system surrounding a celebrity leader reduces the points of popular pressure—or indeed of any input at all. There is a rotating class of professional politicians, varying from the Centre-Right to the Centre-Left, and often drawn from the same social circles, even the same families. This amounts to a profound hollowing out of democracy.

The result is a sense of dis-ease with politics as usual. This is referred to in political-science literature as ‘a crisis of legitimacy’. The symptoms are myriad, with the most obvious being the decline in electoral participation—a kind of ‘don’t vote, it only encourages them’ phenomenon. Trend lines for five major countries—Germany, the US, the UK, Japan and India—show (with some episodic interruption) steadily falling electoral participation between 1960 and 2010. This is replicated almost everywhere. There is a vast literature on the whys and wherefores of this crisis and on proposed solutions (better civics education, compulsory voting, e-voting) that seldom get to the root of the problem.

The underlying truth is that people feel unrepresented by their representatives and that there is little at stake for them in the electoral process. Even an election in which there are stark divisions must overcome a growing backlog of public cynicism and apathy. A popularly held view is that the fix is in and, no matter what the electorate wants, powerful interests behind the scenes will hijack policy and shape it in favour of their own interests. Much of this is a fairly accurate perception of a situation where the power of financial institutions and corporations amounts to a de facto veto over economic policy. The current fiscal restructuring and cut-back regime has the potential to cause unprecedented public outrage as tax money is used to bail out the main predator banks and financial institutions that caused the crisis. Everyone else is meant to pay for these bailouts through cuts in services, lost homes, layoffs and tax increases. While there have been a few sacrificial figures from the financial Žlite, as a whole it has been coddled and protected by the political class. Instead a politics attacking ‘special interests’ has diverted attention to the usual suspects—immigrants, refugees, unions, undeserving retirees, criminal youth and the marginalized who are dependent on welfare provision for their well-being.

The politics of anger

There was and still is genuine popular shock and anger that is by no means confined to the Left. By and large, the Centre-Right has proved more successful than the Centre-Left in mobilizing this alienation. Through the deployment of attack ads and dog-whistle politics (sending racially tinged or similarly socially unacceptable messages using code words), it has been able to mobilize a kind of ‘don’t get mad, get even’ message that disguises itself as a genuine challenge to politics as usual. This is largely sleight of hand—a kind of anti-politics run by and for professional politicians. It taps into the large reservoir of popular anger with real causes and diverts it into its own anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-immigrant, anti-crime message. The mix varies, depending on national circumstances and political cultures—more anti-tax in North America and more anti-immigrant in Europe.

The Centre-Left’s message of a ‘responsible’ and ‘balanced’ approach to managing the economic crisis is proving a poor match for the Right’s politics of anger. People intuitively realize the necessity of radical solutions to a profound ecological and economic crisis but end up settling for a sham radical rhetoric fashioned to speak to their anger. The Centre-Left finds its own ‘responsible option’ rhetoric turned against it and finds it is painted as being ‘responsible’ for a wasteful ’ tax-and-spend’ politics as usual (and, by default, business as usual). It is sadly ironic that the Centre-Left is now tarred with responsibility for the priorities of a system it came into being to oppose.

The populist far Right has undergone a still fairly modest but alarming rebirth by playing on similar themes and pointing out that their Centre-Right rivals aren’t really serious about stemming the immigrant tide, about overcoming the supposed’ Islamization’ of national cultures or, in more Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions, about reducing the size of the state. This last theme is a major trope of the US Tea Party movement, which seeks major surgery of government programmes. There has been an increased vote for the more classic fascist formations such as the National Alliance in Italy (12-15 per cent of the national vote) and the Front National in France, led by Marine Le Pen. Both of these are trying to reinvent themselves as modern populist parties, distancing themselves from their fascist roots. Both combine the immigrant/crime trope with a vague analysis of an unaccountable system where shadowy figures manipulate behind the scenes.

Surprisingly, the most successful of these far-Right movements have grown up in the northern European societies that helped pioneer the welfare state and where that state has reached its highest expression—the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Belgium. Interestingly, parties such as the True Finns or the Netherlands PVV (Party of Freedom) combine their anti-immigrant xenophobia with a much stauncher defence of the welfare state than the capitulation offered by the mainstream Centre-Left. The Centre-Left’s bankruptcy in this regard is starkly exemplified by the fact that one of their own (the controversial Dominique Strauss-Kahn) was appointed to head the International Monetary Fund, the main international enforcer of neoliberal discipline. DSK was, until recent philandering scandals, the French Socialist Party’s best hope to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy for President.

The European populist Right also draws electoral sustenance from its opposition to the way in which the unelected bodies of the European Union have run roughshod over popular votes against the EU Constitution and the Treaty of Lisbon. This is not just nationalistic, anti-European kneejerk but represents a widespread doubt about putting economic policy in the hands of the bureaucrats of a European Council and Central Bank so well insulated from the desires and needs of the European citizenry.

The Left faces a crisis of the ‘hollowed out’ in both the economy and the polity of ‘advanced’ societies. Production has been hollowed out by the shift of manufacturing to Asia and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. The conditions of the working population in rich countries have been badly degraded. The decades-long stagnation of wages dates from the early 1980s and the galloping inequality that has accompanied it have scarred most Western societies. Back in the day when Henry Ford showed United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther his new mechanized assembly line and proclaimed proudly that he would no longer need UAW members to produce cars, Reuther’s response was simple—‘Who will buy your cars then, Henry?’ Reuther’s question not only remains unanswered but these days reverberates across the industrialized economies. Part-time employment and underemployment in the service sector (the ubiquitous McJob) as well as increasing actual unemployment are becoming the norm, particularly for young workers.

A crisis of demand and overproduction lurks beneath the surface. Over recent decades this has been masked by flooding the economy with credit, to the point that household debt has become unsustainable. In European societies, in particular, this hollowing out has been muffled by social spending. But this too is becoming unsustainable as public debt mounts and the equity of tax systems are eroded by the political influence and use of tax-avoidance strategies by top-tier income earners. Wealth has become securitized as well as globalized, as finance capital and institutional investors continue to play Russian roulette by blowing a series of speculative bubbles: first the high-tech industry, then real estate and now food supply are being manipulated in this way. Overlay this with a series of dire but mostly accurate predictions about the fate of the global ecosystem and what emerges is a perfect storm of instability.

The one thing that many, perhaps most, people have lost in this process is a sense of personal security—along with any real optimism about the future. For many people it’s a life under pressure: living on credit and holding down more than one job. Pension entitlements in both public and private sectors are under attack, making old age a potential nightmare. Addictions, family breakdown, unstable communities and the rise of religious cults—the list of symptoms of insecurity is sadly familiar. The World Health Organization continues to predict an epidemic of serious depression, estimating that 121 million people currently suffer from depression that is often related to issues of personal insecurity. Every year nearly 10 per cent of the US population aged 18 and over are diagnosed with a serious depressive disorder.

The political contenders and movements that offer some kind of renewed hope for a secure future are the ones most likely to hit a resonant chord. The danger here is that the politics of nostalgia will take hold. Such notions have purchase across the political spectrum. Many on the radical Left still fantasize about a night of the barricades to settle all accounts or a return to traditional working-class politics. Others dream of a centrally planned state socialism. For the US Tea Party and others of the libertarian Right, it is the return to a simpler time of small government and pure market relations that of course never existed. For the European populist Right, it’s a reassertion of national cultures and identities besieged by an influx of criminal immigrants who will work cheap. Thoughtful politics is further impeded when political cultures infantilize their citizenry and promote strong ‘father figure’ leaders as the hope for salvation. An underlying appeal in all of these is the security of a return to the familiar—a golden past which is largely mythical but still potent.

For political contenders who reject the current consensus of ‘tough love’ neoliberalism but realize there is no past utopia to return to, addressing popular insecurity is a serious, maybe the most serious, issue. They propose sustainability, participatory democracy, community empowerment, an economy not based on growth, reductions in production and consumption of commodities. Yet it becomes difficult for citizens to see past all this and feel a sense of hope in a future that is, at best, a set of loose ideas. People’s fears are more easily bent in a conservative direction, as George Bush understood when, at the dawn of the ‘war on terror’, he boldly proclaimed that ‘our lifestyle is not up for negotiation’. Yet that is exactly what needs to be done—we must renegotiate how we live with each other and our relationship to nature.

It is here that the ghettoization of the anti-globalization and other radical movements is proving so costly. It cuts the Left’s potential connection with those who live in the suburbs and shop in malls, whether it’s Walmart outside St Louis or Carrefour on the edge of Lyon. Our movements can’t afford to be cut off from the anxieties of the depoliticized, even if they are drugged by passive entertainments and consumer addictions. We cannot allow a cultural divide that prevents us from speaking to the worries of parents whose concern for the future does not extend beyond their own children. We cannot ignore the distress of workers facing layoffs from industries which are polluting and produce junk we don’t need. And we cannot dismiss those who are obsessed with public safety and who are willing to scapegoat anyone different as a threat to it. These people are not fascists but they are the potential supporters of a politics of fear and anger tapped by both Centre-Right politicians and rightwing populist movements. The culture of opposition too easily slips into a disdain for the mainstream that belittles people’s everyday problems as irrelevant to the big issues of species survival. Revolutionary Žlan (and easy arrogance) and an understandable anger sometimes blind radicals to the sources and potentials needed to make revolt successful.

Security—the Left can’t miss the boat

How to bridge such a gap? Aside from developing the obvious political sensitivities and antennae that would help to deghettoize radicalism, it might help to offer some simple programmatic ideas that have some chance of gaining popular traction. What is particularly needed is a way to address people’s sense of insecurity in a meaningful way. One of these, simple and easy to understand, is the notion of a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) to provide for the basic needs of every person in the world. Amounts would, of course, vary depending on the cost of living in particular regions. National proposals for a basic social wage have been widely debated, particularly during the period of relative prosperity following World War Two. Such discussions have gone out of fashion since the 1980s and the rise of neoliberalism shifted the emphasis away from welfare and onto the disciplines of the market. There is not the space here to rehash the annual income discussion beyond making the observation that more than enough wealth is produced globally to achieve this goal—provided there were equity in distribution and the elimination of waste such as runaway spending on armaments, useless consumer production and speculative excess. BIG would not stand alone but would be a key part of an overall social wage that would also provide basic collective goods such as healthcare, education, affordable housing and healthy food. A recent champion of BIG was the late British political economist Andrew Glyn, who concluded his persuasive case with the following:

‘The fundamental point is that if the scheme discourages moderately the total amount of formal sector work, as well as sharing it out more equally, then these effects are wholly to the good. For many formal-sector jobs as presently constituted are loaded with severe “negative externalities”. They crowd out time for personal relationships and other activities which people find intrinsically satisfying, in contrast to the alienating aspects of much formal-sector work, and much of the consumption they finance imposes a heavy toll on the environment’ (Capitalism Unleashed, Oxford University Press, 2007).

Glyn realizes that BIG is a reform in the sense intended by AndrŽ Gorz (in other words, one that has the structural potential to fundamentally alter power relations) as it mounts a challenge to market-driven jobs and the growth paradigm that underpins the current model of domination and command. Gorz, in his Critique of Economic Reason, develops a convincing case focusing on the implications of BIG’s ecological impact:

‘Our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact…’(Critique of Economic Reason, Gallile, 1989).

On a more prosaic level, BIG offers a possible antidote to the insecurities that plague modern life. Debt-ridden consumerism could be replaced by a more relaxed existence where quality and reflection weigh heavier than quantity and addiction. Democracy too would benefit if the politics of fear and anger on which the Right feeds were diminished and there were more time for a thoughtful and engaged citizenship. Reducing the centrality of jobs in our lives would also curtail the influence of the authoritarian culture of wage labour and the anger and sense of loss many bring home at the end of the working day. Capital’s devil’s bargain has had us trading freedom for commodities. A significant social wage would allow us to regain some of that freedom. It has the potential to become a rallying demand for radical movements, allowing them to approach the hard-pressed mainstream with an attractive alternative to stagnant incomes and growing personal debt. The universality of the programme would help undermine the way in which the populist Right rallies support against means-tested piecemeal welfare targeted at groups such as poor immigrants and people of colour.

Any renewed radical politics needs to be one of common dreams that moves beyond the particularist claims of identity and other partial causes, no matter how important it remains to address these. In recent years a few candidate movements have shown staying power and popular resonance because of their promise not just to stop existing evils but to stake a claim for something better—the slow food movement and the persistence of advocacy for the Tobin tax spring to mind.

Whatever the programme, the Left must rethink its relationship to power. For the electoral Left, this means avoiding taking power at whatever opportunity presents itself. The gains by the radical Right should make it clear that there is a large and growing reservoir of anger and discontent with politics as usual. When the Left takes over or even has substantial influence on government in a situation of dire economic crisis, it is simply taking responsibility for managing a crisis that it has only very limited means to influence. The Centre-Left is probably beyond redemption in this regard, having committed itself to a programme of limited humanization of the management of the business cycle. This is a fatal political error, particularly in a situation like that in Anglo-Saxon political cultures where public opinion has been carefully shaped to believe in a ‘naturalization’ of the market (in other words, that the market is a pre-existing condition of life in which human intervention should be at best minimal). Such an approach sets the Left up for ‘tax-and-spend’ charges by free-market libertarians. The electoral Left that still believes in social transformation needs to use the political arena to maintain a steadfast opposition and put forward clear ideas of an alternative without any illusions of being able to impose them from above. It must abandon the statist inheritance that hangs on from Bolshevik and Social Democratic days in favour of fostering a thoroughgoing cultural and social change in opinion. In this endeavour, electoral organizations committed to social transformation (the Anti-capitalist Party in France, the Left Party in Germany, the European United Left, QuŽbec Solidaire to name but a few) need to make common cause with radical social movements in framing a popular programme that reaches out rather than restricts. It is a long game—but most short games are being won by the Right at this point.

If capitalism, as Marx implied, is the most radical of all social systems—with its Schumpeterian tendency towards a creative destruction constantly destabilizing people’s lives in order to create new avenues of profit—then perhaps it is a mistake to try to ‘out-radicalize’ it. Relying on apocalypse and doomsday scenarios rather than possibility only plays to the merchants of insecurity. In a world where people are starved for security, maybe a better approach is to knit together an alternative that has a chance of providing it. A simple message needs to come across: ‘your life should and can be better’.

For the Left to popularize a vision of radical democracy and an eco-economy geared to people’s actual needs would be a huge step towards undermining the consensus of hopelessness and cynicism that neoliberalism has installed at the heart of popular culture. Uniting around a straightforward and easily understood proposal like that of a Basic Income Guarantee could give us a wedge issue that might break the current logjam and open up a number of other radical possibilities. Whatever the exact formulation, what is needed is a consistent message that is made over decades until it is established in the popular mind as a real alternative to the rule of Capital.