Brits in the EU

A View from Europe: The Death of the Traditional Left

The British Labour Party appears on the verge of electoral annihilation. But a look at the wider European continent shows it's not just the UK's old workers' party that's on its last legs, the same can been seen among their comrades in social democracy across the western world.

The results of March's election in the Netherlands brought a sigh of relief from moderates across Europe. The anti-immigrant PVV had failed to overhaul the centre-right governing party, showing again the limitations of modern pre-election polling - many of which had actually predicted Gert Wilders' party would become the largest in the House of Representatives. That the PVV are now the second largest party in the Dutch lower house is not, however, only a result of rising anti-Islam sentiment in the more conservative parts of the Netherlands. It is also the latest in a series of collapses on the centre-left that we expect to see replicated in Britain on 8th June. The previous round of elections in 2012 had left the once-socialist PvdA as the second largest party in the Dutch parliament, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte invited them to become minority partners in his coalition government. But this association with their neoliberal opponents, as with the Liberal Democrats in Britain, evidently sounded the death knell for the social democrats; in the 2017 elections the PvdA not only lost 29 of their 38 seats, they also failed to win a single municipality for the first time in their 70-year history.

It's a pattern that's familiar across the continent, from Spain to France to Hungary the traditional leftist parties have all suffered a similar haemorrhaging of votes. Much is made of the far right playing on working-class discontent to steal away the former strongholds of socialism, and this has left the old workers' parties scrambling for policies on immigration, fighting on foreign terrain rather than on their traditional bastions of equality and economic alternatives.

But it would be wrong to put the blame for their defeats on a lack of policies to combat directly the more racist elements of the extreme right. In an age of austerity and bank bailouts, it's hardly surprising to find populations indignant, but it's also too easy to characterise the 'alt right' as purely appealing in terms of bigoted sentiments. Such an analysis misses what we used to think was obvious, that "it's the economy, stupid." Because what UKIP, Marine Le Pen's National Front and Viktor Orbán's Fidesz share with the National Socialism of 1930s Germany is that they all offer a 'mixed' economy of state and private ownership, of subsidised gas bills and cheaper transport tickets as much as flag-waving nationalism and hatred of the outsider. However, as a result of decisions made over the last quarter of a century, the traditional 'parties of the people' have become so hollow that it's now unthinkable for them to offer anything similar. They are now simply pale replicas of their main centre-right opponents.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the world lost its foremost example of a non-capitalist alternative. With the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties edging ever quicker towards the neoliberal systems of the west, it seemed the idea of state ownership had had its day, that we were experiencing the end of history, that capitalism had won once and for all. This lack of a credible alternative forced the European socialist parties to throw down their weapons in the war of economic ideas, surrendering to the neoliberal doctrine of 'private good, public bad' to focus purely on the battle of winning elections.

I was in the Netherlands recently, at the annual workshop put on by the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis. While there, I was struck by the regular, and regularly imprecise, use of the term neoliberal to describe anything the speakers didn't really like about their current situation or modern academic requirements. Neoliberalism is in fact an economic doctrine which promotes the private (corporate) ownership of all sectors of the economy, from natural resources to utilities to once-public services, and believes these 'markets in everything' will run best if no one's allowed to watch what's going on. (See sidebar for recommendations on the subject). This is a marked difference from the more controlled and mixed 'Keynesian' economics adopted after the second world war, fundamentally in its fanatical adherence to ideology. Its supporters, however, claim a long if dubious heritage.

See Also

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Further Reading

David Harvey: A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Joel Baken et al.: The Corporation

Noami Klein: The Shock Doctrine

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The Aimless Wanderer

Brits in the EU: a video project to collect the views of British people living and working in Europe.

Pap: my latest novel is a futuristic dystopia on the perils of neo-liberal monopolisation. Available now

Audiovisuals: Aimless Wanderer Podcasts and videos of Adam.

Scribblings: analysis and original research from the Aimless Wanderer

Teaching: a collection of English as a Foreign Language lessons and courses I have developed.

In 2007, during the final months of Tony Blair's tenure as the longest-serving Labour Prime Minister ever, the Bank of England issued a new £20 note. Gone was the face of composer Edward Elgar and an etching of Worcester Cathedral, in their place an obscure reference to pin-making and the bust of Scottish 'philosopher' Adam Smith. The reference was made all the more obscure because Smith (1723-1790) is known among modern economists for just two words, neither of which featured on the note itself; it was most certainly he that wrote of the "invisible hand" of the market, although what he actually meant by it is rather less clear. Despite having lived at a time of 'mercantilist' economics, when national governments controlled all trade across their borders, and having died before the term capitalism even entered the English language, Smith is seen as the founding father of Neoliberalism. The rise of Margaret Thatcher brought the Adam Smith Institute to the forefront of political and economic ideology, and the terminology it uses to describe its namesake's most famous book will be familiar to most political watchers. It says The Wealth Of Nations "is no endorsement of economic greed, as sometimes caricatured. Self-interest may drive the economy, but that is a force for good - provided there is genuinely open competition and no coercion. And it is the poor that economic and social freedom benefits most." Or as Gordon Gekko put it during Thatcher's time, "greed is good!"

When politicians and economists talk today of 'cutting red tape' they are speaking precisely about "open competition and no coercion". But they are not talking to the electorate who can expect to see very few of the benefits. Instead, news reports and comments are aimed directly at the markets whose bots are watching their every online word, helping ensure the algorithms keep on churning out the profits for their wealthy clients. And the algorithms which run our financial markets have the concept of purely selfish human behaviour stamped through the code like a stick of Blackpool rock. Homo-economicus may be a spending-crazed sociopath, but in many ways western society has internalised his basic drives. Terms like 'deregulation' and 'economic rationality' have become such a part of our political parlance that no one thinks to question them; we've all absorbed the idea that private ownership is more efficient than public, so much so that we never think to ask for whom it is more efficient or what it even means to be economically rational.

And Europe's former parties of labour were in the middle of this economic whirlwind; for a time they surfed its upthrusts, riding high into the lofty seats of power. The British Labour party formerly scrapped their call for common ownership of the means of production in 1995. Two years later they were in government, riding to an unprecedented victory on the back of support from the right wing popular presses. As the country's highest selling tabloid put it in a famous headline the following day, "It was the Sun wot won it". Blair and Brown would remain in power for another thirteen years.

But this selling out of party principles for short-term electoral gain has had severe long-term implications. Labour, like so many of their contemporaries across Europe, have turned from opposition to become the embodiment of establishment thought. So when a man like Jeremy Corbyn finds power in the membership but not the party hierarchy he is reviled, spun against, challenged constantly until her majesty's opposition rips itself apart, handing their supposed opponents power for another five years as they show themselves incapable of getting behind someone who thinks the railways should be renationalised and that intercontinental nuclear conflict is a bad idea. All this means that when the electorate is looking for something different, for a party that will fight for their cause, they are unable to call upon the traditional opposition to act against the neoliberal status quo. They are the neoliberal status quo.

What those centre left parties, in their millennial dash for power, wanted to show everyone was just how fluent they were in neoliberal discourses. The Spanish socialist (PSOE) governments of the 80s and 90s instigated unprecedented sell-offs of state assets, dwarfing anything that had been done in the country before, even under the fascist dictatorship of General Franco. It's a common thread that links their counterparts all over the world, but especially in Europe. The Hungarian Socialists (MSzP) did very much the same during the 1990s as they shed their communist overcoats to rejoice from the neoliberal hymnbook with all the zeal of the converts that they were. In the same way, New Labour followed through with the Adam Smith Institute's plan for privatising British Rail. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's government also committed hospitals and schools to decades of debt through private finance schemes or 'partnerships' which the markets loved, largely because they guaranteed profits on virtually risk-free investments. The Guardian estimated in 2012 that the 717 PFI contracts under way at the time would ultimately cost the taxpayer over £300 billion on a capital expenditure of £54.7 billion, or nearly 600% profit.

While many in the upper echelons of political power may struggle to believe it, the electorate is not stupid. We may not be privy to all the fine details, but it's not too difficult to understand what a cabinet minister might discuss on a foreign oligarch's yacht, why a former Prime Minister would be keen on becoming godfather to the daughter of an international media mogul, and that "no coercion" applies only to the high and mighty. As communities and individuals are forced into paying ever more for access to basic services, they see the mega profits of big business fail to 'trickle down' as promised and this makes people angry, makes them lust for change. What really tolls the bell for Europe's traditional leftist parties is that they are unable to offer anything to these people, that they're too deeply mired in neoliberal orthodoxies to fight on their old battlegrounds or on behalf of their base, too busy whizzing through revolving doors to see that there are alternatives.

Adam R. Mathews,
Madrid, Spain, 19 April 2017

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