Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Radical Right and the Crisis in Europe

Throughout Europe the stakes could not be higher. In every corner of the continent - from its historic core to its long-suffering peripheries - underlying conflicts are resolving themselves into a full-blown political crisis.

What are the roots of this crisis? First, the European social model has withered beneath its leaders' feet. Second, the political consensus around integration has collapsed. To understand why this has happened, readers could do far worse than consult the ongoing debate between Germany's preeminent sociologists, Wolfgang Streeck and Jurgen Habermas. Here we only have space to simplify grossly: a kind of evolutionary institutional change has driven out once and for all the old idea of a social Europe, and its replacement - liberal, transnational, capital-favouring - has failed to produce a satisfactory social consensus which might compensate for the loss of the postwar settlement.

In terms of political forces, conventional wisdom has long held that there were clear winners and losers from this process: the old, nationalist left and right lost; the adaptable social and market liberals won. Yet as the social crisis impinges on high politics, that analysis is looking increasingly shallow.

First, social democracy - both in its traditional and in its Blairite forms - has been utterly eviscerated and defeated. In the early nineties the sociologist Michael Mann warned, "Unless socialists raise their eyes from the nation-state, they will have nothing to offer voters." Yet social democrats embraced a multi-national Europe and a transnational capitalism, and collapsed for precisely that reason. Secondly, the traditional centre-right is sharply divided between free market capitalism and national protectionism. This is true not only in eurosceptic Britain, but also - perhaps especially - in countries like Greece and Spain, which entered the European Monetary Union only to crash and burn after 2010.

Finally, the rise of the new radical right, which began in Europe's core countries of the Netherlands, Austria and France, has spread like wildfire into those peripheral states which staked most on EU accession and have often suffered most because of it. The speed of the radical right's electoral gains are unlike anything seen in Europe since the rise of fascism and the authoritarian right in the 1930s: Hungary is dominated by both a hard right and an extreme right party; Poland has elected a party of pronounced right-wing and authoritarian tendencies; Golden Dawn has consistently increased its vote share in Greece; the Front National is perhaps the second party in France after recent regional elections. The list of European municipalities with far-right, xenophobic governments goes on and on - from Austria to Denmark to Britain. Germany, the beating heart of Europe's bad conscience about fascism, has even seen the rise of a nationalist, anti-Islamic group, Pegida. Their stock in trade is anti-Islamic violence. Little can be said of its causes here, save that its pan-European character must originate in pan-European problems, most likely the demands for an enclosure of national sovereignty in the face of a system that has taken to punishing any display of autonomous decision taking by member states. The mechanisms of integration, the social dispensation, the interaction between national democracy and transnational regulation have all broken down. The breadth of these radical-right victories is unprecedented since the Second World War. The danger is not to be underestimated.

All traditional political forces in Europe have ignored this crisis, preferring to side with the rising right and blame our problems on incoming migrants and refugees. Only the radial left has shown any understanding of this crisis. Yet even on the left the strategy for fighting back has been pathetically weak. Some on what remains of the radical end of social democracy have understood that the crisis is not a result of refugees but of the breakdown of a social and political order that shows little evidence of producing anything new. Yet the response is dismal. "We must learn to speak the language of ordinary people again," we are told. It is not how politicians speak, but rather what they represent that is being rejected: an unresponsive, distant, detached elite. In short, the entire political system. 

Walter Benjamin wrote that behind every fascism is a failed revolution, but this is not quite true. Behind every fascism is a failed politics. The far right is offering Europeans a bleak, but so far the only, solution to the political and social void left by global disorder, economic turbulence, and the end of the postwar era.

In this sense, the collapse of the left and the rise of the right are indeed connected. But we massively underestimate the scale of the problem if we assume a direct cause. This is about more than the left's own, internal failure. The success of the Front National in working class regions in France is proof positive of the end of old school social democracy and the absence of any progressive alternative. Yet defeating the right will involve far more than a change of tone or an appeal to people's better nature made through the old political channels, as it is precisely these old political channels - republicanism, democracy, social welfarism, federal or intergovernmental Europeanism - which have ceased to function.

The best evidence of this can be found in the careers of Europe's recent radical-left parties. Phenomenal success in Southern Europe - in Greece, Spain, and lately Portugal - has been followed by equally impressive retreat. This is because those parties have pursued electoral strategies which demand reforms from political systems incapable of permitting them. Even in Britain the assumption among Corbynistas is that the state will allow them to enact reforms if Labour is elected on a serious but modest platform. It doesn't enter anyone's head that the national state may currently be incapable of implementing their reforms. It is not that the nation state will not enact social democratic reforms, but that in the era of global capitalism it cannot. The various levels of official democracy - from the number of votes cast to the power of government itself - have crumpled in on themselves.

The great challenge will be to root radical movements deep in society, far beyond the state and its dependence on global finance. This could take a generation, certainly far more than an electoral victory alone. An intense degree of social mobilisation will be necessary for even the slightest social reforms to be implemented today. The weakness of Syriza, Podemos and Left Block is their lack of deep roots in organised social movements and their reluctance to call on those movements once in power. They have sought to gain legitimacy in the eyes of political systems which themselves lack any legitimacy in the eyes of voters. 

This may seem unrealistic, but it is a safer bet than the fantasies of so-called moderate social democrats. They now advocate tacking hard to the right, accepting anti-immigrant xenophobia, and proposing only the mildest curbs on the freedom of capital. The results will be the same as they have been across Europe: failure to win an audience on immigration; failure to regulate capital; collapse in the polls. France, the political heart of Europe, provides the best evidence of this doomed-to-fail moderation: Francois Hollande offered to soften austerity, yet under him it has only got worse. After five short years in power, the Socialist Party faces total wipeout. Its support has collapsed as the Front National's has risen. 

These pleas for moderation fail because they ignore the deep crisis of democracy across Europe. So far that crisis has fuelled the rise of the far right. Only the radical left can rebuild democracy from the grassroots up.

No comments:

Post a Comment