With both the Italian elections and the German effort at a so-called “Grand Coalition” in the recent news, much attention has turned to political developments in Europe. For those of us in the US, interest comes not only from the impact of European politics on our own affairs, but also from the fact that US and European trends have often traveled parallel tracks.
For example, in much of the post-war period, governance in Europe has revolved around two centrist political poles that can be roughly characterized as Christian democracy and social democracy. Insofar as both poles defend capitalism and oppose Communism, support capitalist institutions, and are content to peacefully alternate rule, they mirror the US two-party system without the stricter institutional backstops that preserve the electoral system for the Republican and Democratic Party in the US.
Certainly, the Western European political systems were nominally multi-party after the war, but the dynamics of those systems steered political developments toward the center. The far right was appropriately neutered by the discrediting of Nazism and fascism as a consequence of World War II. The revolutionary left-- the Communists-- were overtly and covertly thwarted by the Cold War, the NATO consensus. Where the Communists enjoyed formal legality, the centrist parties, the US, and the NATO allies worked hand-in-glove to deny participation in government.
While both European Christian democracy and social democracy were firmly committed to the capitalist course, social democracy wittingly served as a buffer against the attraction of a workers’ state by advocating a kind of faux-socialism, a socio-economic safety net. As an insurance policy against the ascendency of European Communist Parties, Christian democracy tempered the right’s conventional economic liberalism of minimalist government, unfettered markets, and austere budgets, grudgingly accepting social spending and a more “humane” social contract.
Frustrated with the de facto barrier against Communist parliamentary success, many European Communist Parties began a process of concessions, of shedding revolutionary principles and prospects, creating a left-social democracy dubbed “Euro Communism.” A few Parties resisted this opportunistic path.
The demise of the Soviet Union and the European socialist states proved to be a watershed for European politics and, particularly, the left. The Euro Communist left, stripped of its untenable raison d'être-- Communism without Communism-- collapsed, leaving a void to the left of social democracy. Social Democracy, in turn, cast off faux-socialism for public-private partnership under the direction of monopoly capitalism: markets, and not social policies, were to provide for the masses. And, without the threat of Communism, the right returned to its fundamental character, aggressively pressing unrestrained class politics: anti-unionism, fiscal austerity, deregulation, privatization, and chauvinism.
Without the fear of Communism, capitalism found no need for an accommodation with the working class.
In the 1990s, Continental Europe followed the path blazed in the UK and US over a decade earlier by the Thatcher/Reagan axis. Faced with shifting alignments and the 1970s failure of Old Labour/New Deal policies (specifically, the Keynesian economic framework underlying both approaches), a new consensus began to emerge in both countries.
From the mid-1980s into the next decade, the new consensus spread to nearly all major political parties and around the globe. In its essence, it was a return to Whiggism, the political, social, and economic ideology of the bourgeoisie: parliamentarism, negative rights, and the economic liberalism of minimal regulation, preference for private over public initiative, and markets as decisive of all matters and in the last instance.
Pundits are fond of labeling this development “neo-liberalism,” a statement of the obvious. But the superficiality of that term obscures the fact that the turn is more than a mere policy. In fact, it is a response to the failings of the previous consensus and it constitutes the capitalist norm when the specter of Communism does not loom large over the future.
Social democrats in the US and Europe promoted the notion of a “third way” to mask their capitulation to classical capitalism and its totalizing influence over all aspects of society, over every global nook and cranny. In fact, after the demise of the Soviet Union and its socialist neighbors, there was the one way in the US and EU.
With capitalism marching triumphantly into the twenty-first century, most of the US and European left conceded that capitalism was resilient and here to stay. An inflated memory of a kinder, gentler capitalism might be the best that could be imagined.
But the triumphant project ran aground, crashing on the rocks of economic crises. The capitalist accumulation process imploded in 2000 and, again, even more severely, in 2007-2008. “Recovery” re-established accumulation, but left millions of broken, desperate people in its wake. Inequality, unemployment, underemployment, poverty, insecurity, and alienation afflicted millions in the US and the EU (and, of course, the rest of the world). Capitalism recovered, but the people did not. For the people, the entrenched ideological options of conservatism and social democracy offered only the thin gruel of austerity.
Mesmerized by rising equity values and restored profitability, and impressed with the growing wealth and well-being of the bourgeoisie and the visible and vocal petty bourgeoisie, ruling elites labor under the illusion that all is going well. In Europe and the US, the never-changing meal of celebrity-worship, sports, anti-social social media, and other distractions nourish a false sense of security and satisfaction.
But in towns and villages, neighborhoods and suburbs, people are suffering. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and other addictions are taking a demographic toll, unseen by high-income, physically segregated elites. As insecurities and dysfunctionality grow, millions feel a growing difference-- an often poorly expressed class difference-- between the beneficiaries of the capitalist economy and themselves, the losers.
Without the compass of a revolutionary ideology, without the vision of socialism, this anger remains unfocused, directed vaguely at government, the media, existing political parties, and, too often, convenient scapegoats.
As the anger emerges politically, it is met with elite derision, contempt, or condescension. It is seen by their “betters” as a product of the uneducated, the backward, the uncultured. As Hillary Clinton so famously put it: “the deplorables.”
The insularity of US and European elites-- divided from the masses by culture, social practices, power, status, and wealth-- leads directly to the political crisis that spawned Brexit, Trump’s election, the rise of “populist” or alternative political parties, and most decidedly, the discrediting of historically centrist parties. This last week’s desperate attempt to preserve a coalition of the center in Germany and the collapse of the center left and the shocking success of the Five Star Movement and extreme right in Italy only underscore the distance between the masses and the political parties carefully crafted by the bourgeoisie to contain the aspirations of those masses.
Behind these political developments lies a stagnant, sputtering global economy. It is apparent that segments of the ruling classes are uneasy with or reject the globalist ideology of open markets and are moving towards economic nationalism. The failure of growth to return has led many in the capitalist class to call for a change in direction: protectionism. The emergence of support for nationalism and protectionism has energized the Euro-skeptics, the extreme right, and Trump.
Of course, the other side of this political coin is the failure of the left, especially the left that is yet untainted by the stain of ineffectual social democracy. For the most part, the non-establishment left has failed to deliver a militant, persuasive message to the working people in Europe and the US. And where there is a still a credible militant Communist left, the waters have been muddied by false prophets-- for example, SYRIZA in Greece.
In many countries, the retreat from Marxism became a rout after the fall of the Soviet Union. In its place, ideologies like anarchism, utopian socialism, and cooperativism-- ideologies that had long been discredited by Marx himself-- are revived. The peculiarly North American mania for procedural democracy-- the view that justice will flow spontaneously like a natural spring when we unleash a radical version of Robert’s Rules of Order-- has returned to prominence as shown by to the now collapsed Occupy movement. And of course, left-lite liberals immerse themselves in the battles for self-identity and against “micro-aggressions” while minority identities are actually ravaged by the macro-aggressions of class war and capitalist exploitation.
In light of recent poor electoral showings, some have sought to explain the sorry state of the US and European left as a result of structural changes in capitalism. They see a new working class, the “precariat,” as superseding the traditional proletariat (even The Wall Street Journal has fancied the term). The “precariat” notion derives from the realities of a changing workplace of part-time, contract, temporary, and dispersed employment, an optimal realization of the classical liberal economic dream. This trend in employment has made organizing workers difficult, certainly more challenging than with the world of the traditional worker engaged in one lifetime or semi-lifetime job under a factory roof.
Of course, the structural changes cited are, to a great extent, the result of the failure of trade unions and political parties to defend the interests of workers against predatory capitalists. Moreover, the difficulties that these changes bring forth are obstacles to union organizing, less so to political parties. And history teaches that establishing militant political parties precedes organizing militant trade unionism. No task before the union movement today presents greater impediments than was the task of building industrial unions in the US in the 1930s. The challenge of establishing the CIO was only met, was only possible, because of the leadership and effort of Communist and socialist workers.
Needed is the return in influence of historically informed workers’ parties that draw upon the social theory of Marx and the organizational insights of Lenin (that is to say, parties that reject the backward Cold War dogma of Anything but Communism), Without the strong option of Communist or Workers’ Parties, the European and US working class will continue to face the repellent choice between decadent, rotting centrist parties and a host of new charlatan parties offering fool’s gold policies, magic elixirs, and vulnerable scapegoats.
Only an independent, working class-oriented movement informed by Marxism-Leninism can provide a “third way” apart from the disaster of free-market globalism or the trap of economic nationalism.The old saw that workers deserve their own party is more true today than ever-- an authentic anti-capitalist party that returns to the revolutionary legacy surrendered to opportunism and parliamentary illusions.