Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The New Old Left

Something is stirring within the parliamentary milieu of European social democracy. The comfortable consensus which buttressed the political and socioeconomic prescriptions of the “Third Way” seems in tatters as it comes under contestation both on street level, by the eruption of spontaneous grassroots protest movements and in the field of organized parliamentary politics, by a reinvigorated left-wing, inner-party opposition. More importantly, there seems to be an intrinsic connection between the militant disposition displayed by the working-class segment of the electorate and developments in the political establishment, as the popular demand for a socialist-oriented political force resonates within the halls and corridors of the headquarters of social-democratic parties throughout Europe. To be sure, center-left party leaders hardly appear to have attuned their outlook to social pressures and to have proceeded to a corresponding modification of their overall political position. Yet the culture of dissent is spreading fast within the ranks of party executives and a shift towards factionalism is already under way within left-of-center parties and coalitions. In certain instances, as in the case of the British New Labor Party, the tensions created by resurgent left-wing elements were so severe so as to preclude any possibility of peaceful coexistence within official Labor party structures, resulting in the summary expulsion or the spontaneous scission of those elements opposed to the official party line. In Germany, such drastic measures have been avoided only for a hybrid situation to be allowed to arise in which leading historical figures of the SPD such as Oscar Lafontaine, are conducting vigorous anti-government campaigns alongside an enraged mass of protesters mobilizing against the proposed overhaul of social security and the German welfare system. Finally, in France a considerable minority segment of the socialist leadership has publicly revolted against the prospect of a “Yes” vote in the referendum for the validation of the European Constitution, in the interests of liberty and the defense of democratic sovereignty.
To be sure, the aforementioned episodes involve different groups of actors and are attributable to an array of sociopolitical causes which vary in accordance with the national context within which parliamentary developments unfold. However, if examined together, these separate occurrings can be shown to encompass the individual aspects of a more comprehensive phenomenon, a generalized crisis of the center-left project on a pan-European scale. What is being questioned by the mobilization of European constituents and of some of their political representatives, are core ideological assumptions of the “Third Way”, such as the desirability of further market deregulation and the erosion of European welfare state institutions, the necessity for the pursuit of an ‘enlightened’ liberal imperialism abroad and the traditional commitment of social democrats to the process of European
The extent to which the position of social democrats has become untenable is best exemplified in the case of the German SPD, currently in government. Faced with the growing discontent of SPD supporters and the abysmal fall of his popularity, Chancellor Schroeder engaged in an amazing feat of political trickery with the obvious objective of desperately clinging on to power. While retaining his prime ministerial office, he resigned the post of General Secretary of the SPD in an effort to bring about a conceptual disengagement between his Party and his government in the mind of the average voter. Not only that, but, in effect, Schroeder attempted to usurp both the institutional roles of government and opposition for the sake of his party, by placing Franz Munterfering, a left-wing party apparatchik of well known, working-class origins, as head of the SPD, devolving to him the liberty of issuing frequent and sharp moral condemnations of the inequities generated and reproduced by the neoliberal economic model, while his center-left government proceeds to bring its program of radical reform of the German labor market into completion. In other words, while the executive is pursuing a plan of liberalization and Americanization of the tax system and of the regime of social security, Munterfering is left with the task of trying to reestablish contact with the disillusioned SPD power base. It goes without saying that until this moment the strategy seems to be failing and that the SPD continues to lose ground in all of its traditional electoral strongholds. So much so, that there are already signs of increasing political mobility at the left end of the political spectrum, with new alliances being forged between disgruntled SPD politicians such as Lafontaine and parts of the leadership of the German trade-union movement, with the aim of introducing an alternative, properly social-democratic combination in the upcoming general election. Given the propensity and willingness of the German electorate to experiment in their use of the vote by way of supporting unconventional and, ‘irregular’ even, parties and candidates, as evinces from the recent electoral victories of the NPD in East Germany, an impressive performance by the new, left-wing coalition with its emphasis on the values of social justice, equality and full-employment should by no means be ruled out.
One might argue that Lafontaine’s chances of electoral success far exceed those enjoyed by George Galloway’s RESPECT coalition in Britain. It is one thing to refer to the popularity of George Galloway as independent political figure and quite another to try and assess the electoral prospects of his new-founded political movement. RESPECT’s self-designation as the anti-war party par excellance seems not to captivate the imagination of the British electorate whose political concerns are of a more ‘pragmatic’ nature and whose callous inclinations appear to be largely the outcome of their pliability to deceptive public relations campaigns of political advertising. The Tory bogeyman is one more unfavorable factor for RESPECT as it serves to unify the Labor vote through insecurity and fear of its conservative archrivals. However, to suppose that RESPECT is contending with Labor for the same constituencies and the same portion of overall votes would be erroneous. As an anti-war party, RESPECT should aim primarily at the appropriation of the Muslim vote. This is a segment of the population upon which the impact of the Iraq invasion has been all the more violent and immediately felt, and which has been victimized by the new anti-terrorist legislation passed by Tony Blair’s government. Provided the task of securing the electoral support of ethnic minorities is fulfilled, RESPECT can then simply rely on the genuinely socialist content of its programmatic platform to augment its chances of a future electoral success. For we may safely assume that the global shift of electorates everywhere towards traditional, left-wing political models will persist, in proportion to the ravages visited upon social systems and communities worldwide by way of their subjection to the ‘naked’, coercive and unmediated rule of globalized capitalism. In other words, RESPECT need not go to the voters, for the voters will eventually come to it. Particularly in the UK, where such explosive issues as the renationalizing of the railway, the preservation of social mobility through the maintenance of access to higher levels of the educational system, and protecting the NHS are sure to play a decisive part in the next election. And in four years RESPECT will be in a far better position to address those popular concerns than it is at present.Whatever the case may be, it is surely a beneficial development that traditional social-democratic electoral formations are slowly reemerging from the ashes of the scattered Cold War Left. In this manner, democratic pluralism, whose extinction is the necessary byproduct of centrism, is safeguarded, and themes which were hitherto ‘outlawed’ from conventional political debate, such as the necessity of collective ownership of public goods, the defense of labor rights, the protection of civil liberties and of social security institutions can be reincorporated into the dominant political discourse after having, for a time, being dismissed by politicians as non-sustainable notions or, to borrow from the common parlance of neoliberal orthodoxy, as “obstacles to economic growth

No comments: