The Disheartening Death of the European Left

29/07/2016 12:03 | Updated 29 July 2016

Copyright: Flickr via thierry ehrmann

The European Left is in a parlous state. France's Socialist president, Francois Hollande made history in 2014 when he received the lowest approval rating for a president in modern-day polling: just 12%. This year, his government was rocked by widespread protests against its labour reforms, seen by many on the Left as a pro-business assault on workers, and a betrayal of socialist values. Similar accusations of betrayal dog Syriza in Greece after its humiliating climb-down against its creditors and subsequent implementation of the very austerity measures it was elected to oppose. It shouldn't be this way; on paper, all the conditions are ripe for the success of a Left wing alternative.

Take a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute for example, which reveals the steep rise in the percentage of households in developed economies whose income has flatlined or fallen over the past decade. In the 1990s that figure was 2%, now it stands at 25%. The working class has seen its jobs shipped abroad to low wage countries causing a backlash against globalisation and raising a clamour for the return of well-paid blue-collar jobs to the West. All the while, the top percentile of earners continues to take home more and more of the national income. The groundswell of discontent has erupted in a plethora of protest movements, continent-wide usually coalescing around perceived instances of corporate power run amok: be it home evictions in Spain, or the redevelopment of a square in Istanbul.

And yet, even with all the ingredients present for the making of a perfect socialist cocktail, it is the Right in places like Britain, Germany and beyond who have won big at the ballot boxes and succeeded in bending the tenor of political discourse to their favour.

Where did it all go wrong?

It started off so promisingly for the French socialists, campaigning on a ticket to raise taxes for the wealthy and keep the age of retirement at 60. The easy part was pinning the blame for the recession and rising unemployment on the incumbent administration of Nicolas Sarkozy. The hard part was solving these problems once they got into power. After two years of lacklustre results, Hollande changed tack and embraced the policies it had so breathlessly demonized: tax breaks for business, and fewer regulations in the labour market to make it easier to hire and fire workers. These measures have utterly failed to boost the economy significantly but succeeded in unleashing waves of sometimes violent protests and strike action against a government and party whose claim to the name socialist is sounding increasingly ironic.

The sight of a centre-left politician backtracking on his election promises barely raises an eyebrow, but even the most jaded political observers were taken aback by the sudden and total capitulation of Greece's Syriza-led government to the dictates of its international creditors. And while many in his own party were appalled by this, the majority of voters granted Tsipras a mandate to carry out the reforms demanded of Greece in return for an $86 billion bailout. Once the Greek people finally accepted that they had to bite the bullet, the decent thing for Syriza to do would have been to act as quickly and efficiently as possible. Instead they have involved themselves in unsightly spats with investors, rolling back promised privatisations, or threatening to reverse privatisations - as attempted with the Skaramangas shipyard, offered to the Chinese despite being owned by private capital. What was supposed to be the long-awaited revival of the European Left ended up replacing ideology with bravado, bluster and braggadocio. This has only served to drag the pain out for even longer, leaving the Greek people feeling like the victims of a double betrayal.

Alas the bind in which the Left finds itself is nothing new. Indeed, ever since acquiescing to financial deregulation and bringing the unions to heel, the state, the primary leverage of power for the Left, has become so enfeebled and international capital so empowered that it is difficult to see how a truly Leftist agenda can be implemented without being shot down by the implacable forces of the market.

The new great white hope to take a run and jump at this hurdle, which has felled so many before him, is of course Jeremy Corbyn: a man who has managed to turn what should have been a crisis for the Conservatives - Brexit - into a crisis for the Labour party. As much as they may deny that there is a split, the numbers suggest a definite parting of ways between the party's MPs, more than 20 of whom have quit, and the party membership which has grown by more than 60,000 since the referendum alone. While Corbyn should, as the party leader, be standing as a bridge over that divide, he is instead rallying the support of one faction, the hard core party membership, to help him defeat the other, his own MPs. At present, Corbyn looks likely to win the leadership challenge but at the cost of losing his parliamentary party, meaning that should Teresa May call an election, the conservatives will likely be squaring off against a cast of freshman ideologues rather than election-hardened vote winners.

Between the hollow rhetoric of the Left's politicians and the noisy but largely inconsequential protests of its activist fringe, one would be forgiven for joining the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in despair, who said in a recent interview "I am fed up of these demonstrations of one million people - they are bullshit. A short period of enthusiasm, where we are all together crying and bonding - and then? Ordinary people see no change". Contra Zizek, however, the answer is not the "bureaucratic socialism" he suggests, but the coming together of the political and activist Left to find a few hot-button issues that they can agree on and mobilise campaigns which unite the passion of the grassroots with the effectiveness of the party political machine. But as Jeremy Corby will attest, that is easier said than done.