Throughout the West, frustration with the economy has gone far-right rather than democratic left. Europe’s labour and social democratic parties are at their weakest in a century.
Even in Scandinavia, where the left has long been normal governing party, social democrats now capture only about a fourth of the vote. In the Netherlands and in France, proud mainstream left parties, the French Socialists and the Dutch Labour Party, have been all but wiped out.
In Germany, the SPD has been reduced to governing as a junior coalition party with Angela Merkel’s CDU, hoping to find a road back to power by pushing Merkel to adapt modestly better pro-worker policies and the claiming credit with voters. But the German left is fragmented into the SPD, a Left party (Die Linke), and a Green party that grows more centrist by the day.
The exceptions, oddly enough, are the UK and the US, of which more in a moment. In the English-speaking countries, the right has so discredited itself that one can actually imagine the pendulum swinging back left.
But what happened? Why did a global economic crisis, largely produced by the adoption of conservative and neoliberal ideas about relaxing the constraints on raw capitalism, benefit the far right?
I think there are two major reasons and one contributing cause. The big reason is that after the right’s turn at bat during the long era dominated by Thatcher, Reagan and their ideas, a chastened version of the left came back to power in the 1990s and met the free-market right at least halfway.
This shift was not required by economic circumstances. It was opportunistic, and turned out to be a catastrophic, unforced error.
Bill Clinton rebranded the party of Roosevelt as the New Democrats. He promoted a brand of globalization intended to deregulate global finance at least as intensely as Reagan’s. Clinton and his top economic architect, Robert Rubin (of Goldman Sachs and then of Citigroup) removed the domestic constraints on reckless finance and embraced budget balance more fervently than his Republican counterparts.
In the UK, Tony Blair followed with New Labour. When Baroness Thatcher, after her retirement, was asked by a journalist what she thought was her greatest achievement, she replied, all too aptly, “Tony Blair.”
In Germany, during the same era, the Social Democratic Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, pursued policies deregulating finance and labour that went much further than anything the conservative Christian Democrats would have dared. This prompted a fatal split in the SPD, causing the walkout of its leading progressives and the birth of a new left party, Die Linke.
So when the policies of neoliberal globalism produced the financial collapse of 2008, and angry voters looked for champions, the democratic left had little credibility as a global opposition party. They were fatally compromised as just another party of Davos.
The exception was Barack Obama, or so it seemed. As an outsider and an African American, he looked rather more radical than he turned out to be. But in addressing the economic collapse that helped him win election in 2008, Obama turned to the same protégés of Robert Rubin - people like Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner - whose policies were aimed more at propping up the big banks than cleaning them out. Paul Volcker was excluded from the Obama inner circle as too radical. Paul Volcker!
Obama was also lucky, in that the two Republican opponents whom he drew, Senator John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012, were about as far from populist as it gets. Obama even managed to win about 40 percent of the white working class vote. But when Hillary Clinton, an even more centrist Wall Street and Davos affiliated Democrat, was the candidate in 2016, the pent up anger turned to Donald Trump.
The secondary cause for the eclipse of the left is globalisation in a different sense - the increased flow of immigrants and refugees. Democratic and social democratic parties have always been somewhat more generous on that front than right parties. In the US, the Democrats have expended great political capital on the overdue project of full rights for blacks and immigrants.
That project has been extended to other “Others,” such as gays and lesbians. This is admirable, but any party that wants to champion the rights of transgender people to choose their own bathrooms had better also look out for the pocketbook interests of working people generally, or it will be trusted by the voters to do neither.
Last, the European Union displays a special pathology that disarms the left. The combination of the euro and the Maastricht rules, which preclud independent fiscal and monetary policies, compounded Germany as the perverse enforcer of austerity as the cure for recession, leaves the democratic left, major supporters of the European project, unable to mount a plausible opposition program.
So anger goes far right. It is all too reminiscent of what occurred in the 1920s and 1930s.
The great chronicler of that dismal era, the economic historian Karl Polanyi, pointed out that Marx may have been right about the pathological tendencies of raw capitalism―but he got one big thing wrong. He left out nationalism. When crises come, the workers of the world don’t unite. They are more inclined to turn to fascists.
Is there any way out of this political and economic mess, both generally and for the democratic left as leader? If there is, the most likely place for the reversal to begin is in the US and the UK.
In America, the Republicans have wrapped themselves around Donald Trump, and are likely to pay dearly for that decision. And on the Democratic side, the grass-roots energy is with the left. Their nominee in 2020 will surely be well to the left of either of the Clintons or Obama – a Democrat more in the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt. The Democratic Party will come to embody a serious backlash against the excesses of globalised capitalism, with policies to match.
Such a Democrat was nearly nominated in 2016. Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, came close to snatching the nomination from Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that she had the institutional Democratic Party and all the Clinton connections and funding bolstering her supposedly inevitable nomination. That conveys something of the pent-up demand for a genuine progressive.
In the UK, both the Ukip right and the governing Tory right are appropriately blemished, as well as splintered. So, alas, is the left. Jeremy Corbyn is in far from ideal in some respects, but his critique of the global neoliberal order is spot-on. And Corbyn is now Europe’s last remaining leader of the official opposition who is a progressive.
Whether Corbyn or a successor eventually forms the next Labour government will depend on how and how soon Theresa May falters. But the UK is literally the only country in Europe (and of course it remains to be seen whether the UK is in Europe) where one can imagine a path for the democratic left back to power anytime soon.
In sum, the left discredited itself by embracing a set of calamitous policies invented by the right. It will redeem itself by offering something drastically different.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor of political economy at Brandeis University. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?