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Europe’s Left in Crisis

Both of Europe’s lefts—radical and social democratic—are in crisis. The radical left has been turned inside-out and upside-down by the fall of communism and the rise of reactionary anti-imperialism—the attitude that one must support any and every opponent of America and Israel as “the resistance” to “empire.” This left marches down the streets of London carrying placards reading “We are all Hezbollah now!” (No doubt, soon enough, “We are all Hamas Now!”)

The Stop the War Movement in London supports Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, boosts Bashar al-Assad’s apologists, and protects the regime in Iran.

Labor’s left-wing former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, embraced the cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi as a man to “truly, truly welcome” to our city even though he is a reactionary Islamist cleric who defends suicide bombing against Israeli men, women, and children as “one of the most praised acts of worship,” supports the execution of homosexuals, and endorses wife-beating.

When the academic Judith Butler argued that “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important,” no one bat an eye. (See 16:24 in this video.)

The democratic left-winger Moishe Postone has suggested the cause of this political and moral collapse is the absence on the European anti-capitalist left of either a positive vision of an alternative society or a viable strategy to achieve it. The resulting void is being filled by a negative presence: anti-ism: anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Western, anti-capitalist, anti-global North. “Today, I doubt that even the people who proclaim ‘We are all Hezbollah’ or ‘We are all Hamas’ would say that those movements represent an emancipatory social order,” Postone points out. “At best what is involved is an Orientalist reification of the Arabs and/or Muslims as the Other, whereby the Other, this time, is affirmed.”

This affirmation of the Other translates into support for political actors of any stripe who are shooting at Americans or Israelis or their allies. (Asked in 2004, “Do you think the anti-war movement should be supporting Iraq’s anti-occupation resistance?” the radical journalist John Pilger replied, “Yes, I do. We cannot afford to be choosy.”)

The social democratic left is also in trouble. Postwar European social democracy and US liberalism saved capitalism by harmonizing it with democracy and social stability. No mean feat, that; four golden decades in which the commitment of the working class to the system was secured and, yes, a rising tide really did lift all boats.

But all that was pushed aside by the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher-Reagan era. And the results are in. Alongside the growth, there is the cost: the world’s 85 richest people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Inequality is exploding, democracies are being hollowed out, environments are degrading, corruption spreads, and insecurity, anger, and fear are everywhere. Greed, it turns out, is not so good.

And, note, all this is happening without the mass labor movements and, as important, those dense solidaristic cultures of labor that could have contained and directed those feelings. (Neo-liberalism smashed those up, too. We got Sky and reality TV in exchange.)

So now, everything is more exposed; it’s red raw actually; all those Dickensian things we thought long gone—a separate political class, anti-Semitism, food banks, zero-hours contracts, and corruption among elites (just read the startling opening pages of Perry Anderson’s recent essay)—are back.

So where is all this going? Well, here are two trends to look out for.

First, Paul Berman, in his book Terror and Liberalism, summed up the Islamist worldview in these terms: “Liberal civilization is a fraud and a menace and is, in fact, the source of the world’s unhappiness. Liberal civilization is attacking the Muslim and Arab worlds from within, in the form of liberal Muslims, and from without, in the form of Western imperialism and Zionism.” Today, parts of the radical left—inchoate, angry, negativist, lacking a political anchor, and short on democratic instincts or liberal sensibility—think more or less the same way. The scene is set for a carnival of political cross-dressing. (See the Quenelle phenomenon for a taste of what is to come.)

Second, as the social democratic left has less and less to say to its old base in the working class—having long ago become the gentler face of neo-liberalism—watch that base get stolen by the new populists. For while the social democratic left also lacks a vision or strategy, rather than counseling revolt against The Man, it goes in for accommodation. There are three revolutions in the lives of European workers: (1) turbulent economic globalization; (2) uncontrolled mass immigration—a veritable “demographic revolution” as David Goodhart’s essential book The British Dream puts it; and (3) anti-democratic European integration. For as long as the social democratic left relates to each of these revolutions as the regrettable but natural conditions of modern life, sneering, as Tony Blair does, at those who want to “stop the world and get off,” then don’t be surprised if populist and far-right forces such as UKIP, the FN in France, and Greece’s Golden Dawn continue to surge.

Alternatively, European social democracy could rediscover its purpose and re-enact in this century what it achieved in the last—the use of democratically acquired political power to enforce a new harmony between capitalism, democracy, and social stability. For when the world is careening off in this way—85 people owning as much wealth as the poorest half of the world, for God’s sake—then, yes, of course it is the role of social democracy to “stop it” so people can “get off.”

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