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How the Story of the Left Disappeared
“Democracy is a bit like Father Christmas,” says Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He’s sitting in T-shirt and denim at a small table on the Burgtheater’s stage in Vienna. “Everybody will tell you: ‘Of course I don’t believe in Santa, but I play along with it for the sake of the children.’ The same goes for democracy these days. Nobody believes in it anymore but everybody just keeps playing along.”
It’s comments like this from Zizek, a Marxist, that gets them laughing. Nevertheless, there is something in it, because it explains Labour’s poor performance in Thursday’s British elections – which comes in the midst of the worst economic and financial crisis that we have experienced in the last hundred years. In Poland, where people voted yesterday as well, the Left has not been up to much for years now: both the government and main opposition party are right wing. In France, the Socialists got trounced in local elections recently. Additionally, the near-implosion of the PvdA (Dutch Labour party), of the Greek and Spanish Socialists can largely be reduced to the fact that – precisely at a time when multinationals are becoming more powerful and inequality between citizens is growing rapidly – they are performing a role in a political play that they themselves hardly believe in anymore. To use Zizek’s words: “They act it”.
The voters can sense this with uncanny instinct. It is not for nothing that Thomas Piketty’s book is such a hype, that people are upset about bankers’ bonuses, that Syriza’s ideologies hit such a nerve. Zizek’s polemical lectures have reached cult status. The Burgtheater was completely sold out. There were waiting lists. The Socialist City Councillor for Culture listened for two hours in the first row to tirades about ‘commodity hedonism’, which is, according to Zizek, on course, in part thank to the Left, to sidelining the European democracies. The Social Democrats know it all too well: they have lost their narrative.
The Left’s narrative has in essence always been an economic and social discourse: the narrative of the just society. It was that narrative that made Socialists and Capitalists come to verbal blows in the past. Election campaigns centered on the clash between two opposing economic worldviews and narratives. That was the focus of the main debates. When the Left got elected, you got a radically different economic and social policy than when the right won. That dichotomy in politics has all but disappeared. These days, a left-wing government practically follows an identical economic policy as the right. Due to globalisation, that policy is decided high above their heads: by the ‘markets’, the IMF, the troika or in the boardrooms of bond fund Pimco. A prominent Socialist politician in a European country in trouble declined to be interviewed this week ,,because Wall Street will give me a dressing down if I say one word wrong.’’ He is entitled to his ideas, as long as he keeps them to himself. In short, his room for manoeuvre is nil.
The economic globalisation has blurred the main difference between the left and the right. They have merged into the establishment. Election debates only really focus on other, non-economic themes anymore. About Islam. About GMO’s. About the question whether you are allowed to insult the king or not. In The Netherlands, the government nearly had to resign over the fate of a few failed asylum seekers. In Poland, the main political debate of the last five years has centred on a plane crash in Smolensk, which killed the president. The German SPD has swallowed its criticism of Angela Merkel’s Euro-policy now they are in government together with Merkel. Their grassroots are grumbling: the SPD is losing face. That is why the party leader Gabriel is now eagerly seizing an NSA-bugging scandal to push back at the Chancellor. The media, always game for pseudo-controversies, are giving him a helping hand.
Not that this does not matter. But it does not deal with the substance. This is a distraction and does not concern the just society that the Left stood for. Sometimes, the SPD still manages to create a distinct profile for itself – however, it is rarely for ‘left-wing’ issues anymore. Many voters are missing that voice to the left. You do not need to read Piketty to see in that our economies are beginning to look more and more like the former right-wing ideal. The difference between rich and poor is growing. Governments steeped in debt because they had to rescue top-heavy banks, are slimming down at top speed. They are privatising and liberalising left, right and centre. Administrators have no choice, left-wing administrators have no choice either: they have the markets breathing down their necks.
You would say that this is the moment above all others for the Left to score. But voters can hardly distinguish that narrative anymore. In the political centre, they find an establishment narrative about budget discipline, reforms and cuts. Both the Left and the Right promise jobs and economic growth. There is only a single economic policy, about which debate is not possible. Elections cannot change anything about that. Greek voters dismissed their government because they wanted a different economic policy, but the new rulers will not manage to implement that policy within the Euro zone. That is one of the reasons why fewer and fewer Europeans vote. Or that they vote for ‘something new’ out of a sense of contrariness and frustration, making it feel ever so slightly and briefly like a democracy.
The Social Democrats offer citizens, contrary to what happened after previous economic crises, no solutions. What is more, they share responsibility for this situation. For decades, Socialist politicians, as the Conservatives, have made every effort to enable globalisation. Conservative parties did this out of a sense of conviction. They wanted a capitalist society with strong business(es) and a weak state. The Socialists did it because globalisation freed up cheap credit, which in turn allowed them to keep on paying out benefits, pensions and other gains of the post-war welfare state. That was unwise, we now know – but their motives were understandable: they wanted to prevent social unrest. They had already had an overdose of that in the first half of the twentieth century.
The German Sociologist, Wolfgang Streeck, recently told this newspaper that capitalism and the welfare state ,,do not go together’’. It is by definition impossible to give employers and investors free rein and simultaneously pay employees enough, protect the weak and have public institutions function as they should. That only worked after the war. And even then only briefly: approximately twenty years. “This was an exceptional period,” said Streeck: ,,Employers and trade unions were so traumatised by the horrors of two wars, that they were temporarily prepared to swallow important demands and agree far-reaching compromises.’’ However, at the end of the sixties, the employers had tired of the galling bonds of this social system. They wanted to make more profits. Spread their wings. From that moment onwards, there was only one way to continue paying for the already expensive welfare state: on credit.
And so it happened. At first, European governments borrowed money themselves. That worked well for a while. But then their debts became insurmountable and governments were ordered by the same markets that gave them the credit to introduce cutbacks and privatisation. At the same time they liberalised the financial sector so that citizens could now obtain cheap credit directly. As a result, public debts went down in the nineties, but private debts of businesses and families exploded. In this last, decisive phase prior to the 2008 crash, left-wing politicians also played a big part. Tony Blair made the British economy dependent on the City. Bill Clinton allowed corporate banks to speculate again with savings. When Lehman toppled and the banking crisis in Europe kicked off, there were hardly any Socialists in the European Parliament with economy, finance or monetary affairs in their portfolios. PvdA member, Ieke van den Burg, who did throw herself into it because she did not want to leave financial regulation to the Conservatives, was bitter about this. The Left did partly have themselves to blame for the excesses of the free market, she said at her farewell in 2009. ,,We have gone down the path of economic liberalisation, in the guise of free trade, too much, and have offered too few proposals to make Europe more social.’’ Or rather: the Left was asleep.
That is the score that is now being settled with the Left. The crisis continues. Citizens are realising more and more that politicians have become managers, who do little more than keeping the ship more or less on course – a course that is laid out somewhere else. Those managers promise less and less, because they are unable to deliver the goods. Their campaigns are not based on arguments with respect to contents, but on sentiments. Spin-doctors think of what can help them win elections, all the rest is marketing. Politicians are no longer leaders, but followers. They run their country or province like a business. No wonder that half of Eastern Europe is governed by former business leaders and that Carly Fiorina thinks that you can manage America like a computer company.
The Left is licking its wounds. Many Socialist politicians are cynical and embarrassed. Not the self-assured types you as a voter would trust with your vote. It is that shame that also isolates them from each other, because it is a feeling they would prefer not to admit to. That is one of the reasons for a lot of squabbling on the left. About the course, the strategy, everything. Europe’s Conservative political family shows a lot more solidarity. Their ideology is prospering. David Cameron who wins the elections after five years of slashing the budget – you try it. This will reverberate for a long time. It makes it easier for the Conservatives to sweep internal ‘glitches’, such as the populist capers of the Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, under the carpet more easily.
What now? Syriza, in Greece, is going back to the basics of Marxism. Many European Socialists have some sympathy for that – as long as it stays in Greece. They are too well off themselves to preach for a revolution. That is the genius of our capitalist society, said Zizek: that they are making the revolution virtually impossible. There are ,,modern forms of serfdom and slavery’’ in our society, but without a Left and a Right there is very little sign of the class struggle for the time being: ,,Even the losers of this capitalism, like people who have been the victim of cutbacks, and if freelancers work harder for less money, shout it from the rooftops that they are happy with ‘their new freedom’!’’ There is no other word for it, it is truly: genius.