The neoliberal consensus of the mainstream political parties that had its roots in the 1980s doctrines of Thatcherism and Reaganomics ended in failure with the financial crash of 2007-2008.
Polarisation took the place of this consensus leading to a surge of right-wing populist parties and the rise of left-wing movements. Its impact on the tradition parties of the left and right was to force them to adapt or die.
This sign posts to a coming period of ever greater polarisation, volatility and upheaval.
Traditional left parties, wedded to the establishment consensus, have suffered a string of electoral defeats. These failures have influenced a turn to socialist ideas as an answer to right-wing populism and the problems faced by ordinary people.
Fall out of the 2007-2008 financial crash
The 2007-2008 crash, dubbed the ‘Great Recession’, was the worse financial shock since the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s.
The decline of the industrial heartlands was accelerated. High skilled, well paid, secure employment provided by these industries gave way to low pay and insecurity. Facing the full brunt of the crash, many sections of the working class felt abandoned to their fate.
Middle class people found themselves going backwards. Problems that were thought to be exclusively those of the working class such as job insecurity, declining healthcare and education services are now middle class problems.
The working and middle classes paid the price of economic recovery with the programme of austerity. There has been a huge shift of wealth to the top 1%, with Oxfam reporting that;
The wealth of the richest 62 people has risen by 45% in the five years since 2010. The neoliberal philosophy of the elites has come to be seen as nothing more than a fig leaf for self-enrichment at society’s expense.
The economic and military dominance of the US and the west is being challenged by rising powers of China and Russia while at home the disillusionment of swathes of working and middle class people is fuelling the rise of populism.
This has caused splits in the ruling class over the best way out of the difficulties they face. The warring of the American elite since the victory of Donald Trump shows how deep these divisions are.
In this light polarisation can be viewed as the manifestation of capitalism at an impasse.
One of the casualties of this polarisation is the mainstream ‘centre ground’ parties…
Polarisation – Adapt or die
Polarisation has brought to an end the process of convergence between the established left and right parties and is posing a choice of adapt or die.
The conservative parties have adapted by moving to the right, stealing the language and policies of right-wing populism.
A typical example is given by Qiu Zhibo, writing for the Global Times. She analyised the pressure of the far right on Dutch conservative parties:
“In recent months, more Dutch parties, including the VVD, have moved further right. For the VVD, the more right-wing conservative approach is an effective and inevitable approach to protect its electoral base, as the political agenda is dominated by the far-right party’s anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The conservative party becomes less politically correct and more populist in their words and policy positions.”
The leaderships of the left parties have been unable to put forward an alternative to the shift to the right. In some cases they’ve pandered to the bigotry. French Socialist minister, Manuel Valls, demanded that the;
The Roma should return to their country and be integrated over there,.
This breakdown of the neoliberal consensus and the failure of the mainstream left has created a fertile ground for the rise of right-wing populism.
Rise of right-wing populism
By stoking and preying on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim prejudice, parties of the far-right from the UK’s UKIP to France’s Front National have enjoyed a number of successes. They’ve also employed anti-establishment demagogy to appeal beyond their limited base to disenfranchised sections of the working class.
Despite a number of setbacks suffered by these parties, there is little cause for celebration. The Times newspaper, in a March 17th editorial on the Dutch elections, warned against concluding that the populist threat had been seen off:
“The thwarting of the ultra-nationalist Islamophobe Geert Wilders has prompted relief in the political establishments of Europe who see it as a sign that the populist wave, started by Brexit and the campaigning of Donald Trump, has hit a Dutch dike and dispersed. …This is probably wishful thinking.”
This is a warning to those who think that these movements can be fought with a simple case of electoral arithmetic and is a reminder that elections are sometimes just a marker in the march of events.
Transformation on the left
The mainstream left parties have experienced a series of demoralising electoral defeats across Europe since the 2007-2008 crash.
These setbacks may give the appearance of a left in retreat but the more astute representatives of the ruling classes are not so easily fooled. The Times editorial above also noted the gains made by the radical left:
“Traditional left-wing parties are struggling to find a response to mass migration. As a result they seem to be heading for oblivion. The Dutch Labour party, once a significant partner in government, lost 29 seats, saving a mere 9. … Instead the polarising effect of an election focused on national identity forced left-leaning voters to look elsewhere, to smaller parties such as D66 and the Green-Left.”
The impact on the traditional left parties varies according to their traditions and roots. In the UK, the Labour Party’s close links with trades unions and its history as a mass party means that leftward shifts in society find their first expression in the Labour Party.
This is evident in the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the huge influx of new membership making the party one of the largest left parties in Europe.
But the fate of parties that consistently betray their base, especially during times of crisis, serves as a warning. PSOE in Spain, PASOK in Greece and the PvdA in Holland have all been challenged or swept aside by the more radical left movements of Syriza, Podemos and Green-Left respectively.
The rise of left-wing movements and the elections of figures such Corbyn as Labour Party leader twice and Hamon as France’s Socialist Party leader shows there is a transformation taking place on the left.
Uneven change, volatility and upheaval
Political developments can proceed in an uneven manner. For example, Greece saw a shift to the left in the January 2015 election with the victory of Syriza. A couple of months later the UK’s Labour Party suffered defeat at the hands of the incumbent Conservative Party.
However, as the fall out from the 2007-2008 crash becomes generalised these developments will move into lock step as movements in one country directly influence those in others.
An added ingredient is the volatility of the middle classes. Sandwiched as they are between the two main classes, they can exhibit sudden political swings. In this respect they act as a weather vane for the balance of forces between the working and ruling classes.
By shifting to the right, the traditional conservative parties have given a veneer of respectability to right-wing populism. This populist ideology will be used as a weapon to divide ordinary people against each other and to further their attacks on workers rights and conditions.
This raises the question of how to confront the challenge of right-wing populism, whether of the far right or the mainstream conservative parties.
Experience shows that right-wing populism can not be answered by pandering to it or defending a discredited status quo that gave rise to it.
Events themselves have given an answer to austerity, far right populism and the poison of xenophobia. The campaign of Bernie Sanders in the US presidential election, the elections of Corbyn and Hamon galvanised support behind socialist ideas.
Fears over immigration can only be answered with secure good quality employment, housing, education and health care. Policies like the UK Labour Party’s proposal for a national investment bank to invest £500bn in infrastructure and skills over ten years is a good starting point.
However, this programme would be an anathema to the elites who would see this as a challenge to austerity and even a risk of reversing the transfer of wealth they’ve enjoyed since the crash. In the event they use their economic power to block policies benefiting the 99% there would be the need to go further and look to taking strategic sectors of the economy, for example finance and transport, into democratic state control.
The message from the left should be that defeating right-wing populism and defending the interests of ordinary working people can only be guaranteed by uniting around a platform of socialist policies.
Gary Hollands – April 5th 2017
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