A Case of “Path Dependence”: Social Democracy in Western Europe

For more than three decades, European social democrats have been lost in triangulation. Caught off guard by the “Conservative Revolution” of the early 1980s, they first tried to convince themselves that the social havoc wrought by market deregulations and supply-side incentives would soon eat away at the electoral appeal of the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In time, however, the leaders of socialist, labor and social democratic parties became persuaded that their own Keynesian creed was outdated – that the pursuit of full employment combined with stable jobs, decent salaries, and a solid social safety net was no longer an option in a globalized economy where financial capital flowed freely to what its handlers saw as the most attractive destinations. Thus, ever since, the members of the Party of European Socialists (PES) have been looking, often quite desperately, for some workable compromise between the values they still claim to cherish and the neoliberal policies that they implement as scrupulously as their rivals on the right.

The questions we have asked Fabien Escalona, who has co-edited European Social Democracy During the Global Economic Crisis: Renovation or Resignation? and The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy in the European Union, address the ongoing identity crisis of the center-left: they seek to retrace its history, to examine its present dynamics, and to speculate about its possible outcomes on the European political landscape.

MF: Drawing from Barry Eichengreen’s book, Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919–1939, as well as from the economist Matthias Matthijs’ contention that the euro operates as a contemporary version of the gold standard, you show how, today as in the 1920s, socialist and social democratic parties are caught between their apparently non-negotiable attachment to an international monetary system designed to ward off inflation and the realization that the workings of this system are equally detrimental to their professed values and to their political interests.1 What makes the socialists’ predicament during the “roaring twenties” so similar to the deadlock in which they find themselves at this juncture? Why did the social democratic parties choose to stake their political fate on the construction of the Economic and Monetary Union in the first place? Was it clear from the beginning that this initial gamble would precipitate their decline? Why do they remain so unwilling to reassess their options – as the recent standoff between the Greek government and the Eurogroup clearly demonstrated?

FE: The comparison with the 1920s was partly inspired by the works you cite, but also by a book of Ton Notermans (Money, Markets, and the State), in which the author distinguishes between two major types of economic regimes, each seeking to meet a different challenge – to break spiraling inflation in one case, to prevent spiraling deflation in the other.2 The first regime allows for a high unemployment rate in order to keep labor costs and public finances under control: macroeconomic policies are guided by an austerity imperative (though the latter applies more stringently to salaries and public services than to private financial institutions and major employers), while growth and employment a re entrusted to microeconomic measures. The disciplinary nature of the gold standard clearly served the purpose of this type of regime during the post-World War I period. Conversely, with the second kind of regime, macroeconomic politics have growth and full employment as their principal objectives, while prices are controlled by microeconomic arrangements negotiated between the representatives of labor and capital – sometimes with the assistance of public authorities. This is typically the type of regime put in place in Western European democracies in the wake of the 1930s Great Depression and after World War II. This second regime clearly espouses the objectives historically pursued by social democracy.

A presidential campaign poster featuring William McKinley
A poster from the US presidential election of 1900 portrays the incumbent William McKinley standing on a gold coin supported by representatives of various trades.

Now, the rules and institutions of the Eurozone have a clear bias toward the first type of regime, despite the fact that deflation is one of the main dangers of the current crisis. Some twelve years ago, Notermans wrote that a fixed exchange rate was a crucial element of the then fledgling European monetary union – but also that it could only hinder the implementation of a social democratic agenda. In fact, the rigid and disciplinary nature of the Eurozone is even more consequential than what Notermans had envisioned: for on top of being subjected to a uniform monetary regime, the nineteen national economies comprising the Eurozone are expected to abide by the same budgetary rules.

For many social democrats, opting for a single currency had merit, however: it solved the frequent exchange rate crises that had hitherto shaken the construction of Europe and it also put an end to speculations on the national currencies of various member-states. One should also remember that social democratic policies were already in a compromised position before the creation of the Eurozone: the end of the Bretton Woods system, at the beginning of the 1970s, had proved a major hindrance to the realization of their objectives. Furthermore, the choice of a single currency for a single market seemed at the time like a logical move, except that the conditions for an “optimal monetary zone” were never met.

I would add that two other grounds for Eurozone membership continue to factor in, even at the height of the current crisis. First, for the leaders of the center-left who have completed their conversion to the logic of economic liberalism, a single currency is a means by which they can push to “modernize” the economy of their countries and bring some discipline to the workforce. That was clearly one of the tasks Romano Prodi took on when he took charge of the government in Italy at the end of the 90s. Likewise, some of the socialist elite in France, for whom the imperative of “structural reforms” has become a mantra, have seized upon the euro as a way to anchor a “culture of stability” in a country still far removed from the export-led growth model of its northern European partners. Back in 1984, the historian Alan Milward had already noted that “(European) institutions were created as instruments of nation-states in order to do things impossible to accomplish otherwise…”3

Second, extra-economic reasons also played a part in the social democrats’ allegiance to the common currency. At the time of the unification of Germany, it is well known that the euro was made part of a deal between François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl: Germany would agree to being ensconced in the European club, but only by having Europe adopt its ordoliberal outlook. Still at the geopolitical level, membership in the euro club constituted a source of prestige and a cause for national pride, especially for those countries that were lacking in economic competitiveness and/or had been only recently democratized. Finally, the power of the European ideal should not be disregarded, material rewards notwithstanding. In the minds of many social democrats (but also within the radical left), the single currency remains associated with that ideal. I think we can speak of a “belief” similar to the faith in the gold standard that Polanyi had described with regard to the inter-war period. In The Great Transformation he writes that, “belief in the gold standard was the faith of the age. Naïve credo in some, critique in others, or even a satanic credo accepted in the flesh and rejected in spirit. But it came from the same belief [ . . . ] from the miraculous union of capitalists and socialists.”4

Finally, we can say that social democrats remain prisoners of their monetary contradictions simply because the institutional design of the euro sharpens these contradictions, and that, from their perspective, the motives for and possible benefits of undoing this design are just not compelling enough. First, social democrats are divided among themselves: the interests of their parties clearly diverge according to whether their countries belong to the north or the south of Europe (a distinction that roughly overlaps with the winners and losers of the European monetary regime). Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Minister of Finance who is president of the Eurogroup and who has shown himself to be intractable with the government of Alexis Tsipras, is a member of the Dutch Labor Party who, as such, defends the commercial and financial interests of his country. On the other hand, the new Portuguese prime minister, the socialist António Costa, while certainly not intent on forfeiting his European commitments, clearly calls for the loosening of the austerity measures to which his country is subjected.

Yet, regardless of these differences of sensibility, even those social democrats who, in their heart of hearts, are convinced of the limits of the Eurozone, remain convinced that an open conflict with other member-states over the monetary union would be too costly. Furthermore, it is doubtful that they have any real alternative solutions. The mavericks within the French Socialist Party (PS), for example, have never explained how a single exchange rate could suit economies with different demographics and productive structures. Thus, whether actively or passively, the social democrats are doomed to keep supporting de facto a monetary regime that makes authentic social democratic policies all but impossible.

MF: The most puzzling episode in the recent history of Western European socialist and social democratic parties is arguably their reaction, or lack thereof, to the financial crisis of 2008. For the preceding quarter of a century, the leaders of these parties had assumed, more or less reluctantly, that they could not afford to challenge the neoliberal agenda heralded by their conservative rivals: though condoning flexible labor relations, deregulated financial transactions and depleted social programs made them lose their compass without even helping them in the polls, they had convinced themselves that “there was no alternative.” Yet, when the near-collapse of the banking system and the looming Great Recession gave them a chance to rebound by way of riding the anti-neoliberal wave, they chose to stay the course. How do you explain that the so-called center-left did not even try to present itself as the voice of an alternative reason, even during the months when there seemed to be a consensus about the responsibility of neoliberal policies in the worst economic downturn since 1929? Why is it that, while Keynesian views about the casino-like nature of financial markets and the merits of a counter-cyclical fiscal stimulus figured prominently in the mainstream media, for their part, socialist and social democratic politicians refrained from resorting to their own intellectual heritage and endeavored instead to rebuild the very system that had prompted their decline?

FE: It’s not quite true to say that social democrats did not try. Scholars who pay attention to the programmatic literature of the Party of European Socialists (PES) noticed something of a qualitative leap around 2010. Among the proposals formulated by the PES, they cited the demand for a much stronger financial regulation in the European space, for the issuance of European bonds to relieve the states penalized by the capital markets, for the setting of social objectives, and for new fiscal tools at the European level, like a tax on financial transactions. That said, the PES is a weak player: it has neither the means nor the authority to make the socialist and social democratic parties of the various member-states adopt the policies delineated in its working papers.

Now, despite the qualitative leap mentioned earlier, the proposals presented by the PES were a far cry from any substantial euro-Keynesianism. For instance, they never challenged the centrality of financial markets in the allocation of resources and the funding of public goods; neither did they question the opening of internal and external commercial borders to free trade. Likewise, there was no discussion of the European Central Bank (ECB), no suggestion that it should have a different role than just preventing inflation – since the Germans and their allies are hostile to any change in the ECB’s ground rules and mission. In more general terms, we come back to the problem raised by the previous question: institutions matter, and it has come to light that the European institutions are hostile to anti-neoliberal politics. So, terrified, as they are, to undermine the foundations of the EU – and incapable of agreeing on an alternative model – social democrats refrain from disparaging the actually existing process of European integration.

However, I believe that there is an even deeper reason for the allegiance of the social democratic parties to economic orthodoxy. Somewhat confusedly, the social democratic elite is aware that despite the impasse in which the neoliberal regime finds itself – and its precarious balance since 2008 – their own intellectual heritage – fitting as it was during the glorious days of the postwar economic boom – is no longer adapted to the challenges of the day. In other words, they know that the current crisis is not the replica of the 1930s crisis, and that there will not be a return to Fordism.

Artifices of the neoliberal 2000s notwithstanding, our problem today is to find new sources of productivity in the real economy – so as to back assets and stave off their inflation. While wary of the resurgence of financial bubbles, the social democrats are equally eager to prevent a massive depreciation of fictitious capital – due to a lack of trust in its ability to yield any profit. To prevent ordinary citizens from becoming even more dispossessed with every stock market bust, more growth would be needed: yet, such a prospect seems not only improbable but also incompatible with any serious effort to slow down global warming. As Ashley Lavelle showed in The Death of Social Democracy, the social democratic project was very dependent on high levels of growth.5 However, the latter were nothing more than a short parenthesis in the long history of more or less stagnant economies. Faced with this bundle of contradictions, the social democratic elite do what they can given that they are intent on remaining within the framework of capitalist states – that is to say, on preserving the environment where they established their positions and acquired their resources in the first place.

At this point in time, social democratic parties have clearly lost the precious bonds they used to have with the social “counter-movements” to which they owe their own birth. In the capitalist economy, as seen by Polanyi, these counter-movements are always looking for some kind of protection against “disembedded” economic relations. Yet, ever since they have joined the club of governing parties (and have thus entered state apparatuses at the highest level), social democrats occupy a different place in the Polanyian schema than that of the representatives of the counter-movements. They are now in the business of managing a system where social relations are largely subordinated to the project represented by a global market. Accordingly, the interests of social democratic leaders and the networks to which they belong – as well as the culture and the structure of the parties they run – are adapted to the management of the existing socio-political order. By the same token, however, the ways of the social democrats have become totally ill adapted to any type of challenge to this order. In short, to understand the doctrinal sluggishness of the social democrats, one needs to take into account the historical evolution of capitalism, which no longer provides for the progressive class compromises of yore, but also the sociological evolution of the social democratic parties themselves – now that their “long march” through state institutions has been completed.

MF: Since the end of World War II, there have been three major shifts in the doctrinal orientation of social democratic parties. In the early 1950s, most of them joined the German SPD not only in removing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” from their lexicon but also in pledging allegiance to welfare capitalism – as the regime that would fulfill the promises of socialist emancipation without exposing civil societies to the ills of state socialism. Then, in the seventies, the legitimacy crisis of the welfare capitalist state induced some member-parties of the Second International – in France, Sweden, the UK – to revive discussions about a “transition” towards a democratic socialist regime. Finally, in the 1990s, the British and German promoters of the “third way” vowed to “modernize” their respective parties – a move that amounted to putting a progressive spin on the neoliberal precepts evolved during the “conservative revolution” of the early 1980s: for instance, instead of confronting welfare recipients, civil servants and unionized laborers as abusive special interest groups, they sought to help them break their addiction to social benefits and become self-reliant citizens.

Is there a chance that, in the near future, the exhaustion of the third way rhetoric combined with the ongoing decline of the center-left in electoral terms will persuade socialists and social-democrats to question their choices and revamp their doctrine? 

If such an aggiornamento is still a possibility, where do you think it is going to come from and what form is it most likely to take?

FE: Honestly, for the reasons discussed above, I don’t think this scenario is the most likely one. For supporters of an egalitarian emancipation of human beings, the nature of capitalism’s current crisis calls for a type of radicalism that has nothing to do with a return to the Fordist-Keynesian period. And looking at the succession of defining choices that social democratic parties have made over the last decades, I don’t think that they are likely to rekindle with History’s beautiful loser, namely anti-capitalist yet pluralist and left-libertarian socialism. I don’t want to seem too deterministic or fatalistic, but I think that what the historical institutionalists call “path dependence” is too strong, in the case of the social democrats, to envision a radical bifurcation of their doctrine as a realistic possibility. It is true that after the failure of the so-called “third way” some social democratic parties opted for leaders who stood further to the left.6 However, their terms in power proved very short (take, for example, Håkan Juholt in Sweden), in part because of their own shortcomings but also as the result of an onslaught coming from still powerful “modernizers.”

It wouldn’t have been absurd to think that the shock produced by the violent crisis of 2008 could bring about a real change, of course. However, our book, European Social Democracy During the Global Economic Crisis, showed that it has not been the case, at least up until now. The French case is exemplary in that respect. When the financial crisis hit, the French socialists were not in power and thus could not be held to account for their inability to cope as was the case in some Southern European countries. (One should remember that when the 1929 crisis occurred, the left-leaning parties that happened to be in power faltered as badly as their conservative counterparts; it took them several years to come up with innovative solutions). Then in 2012, François Hollande, the socialist candidate, did get elected, albeit on a program that included few promises of substantial change, and since then, has hardly strayed from a very orthodox economic policy. In fact, his 2012–2017 presidency will be remembered as a period in which the social protection provided by the state has been greatly eroded.

Banksy street art on a Boston wall
Street art by the graffiti artist and political activist Banksy on a Boston wall, 2010.

Now, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party could be held as a powerful counter-example: yet, one should wait and see whether Corbyn will survive the double guerrilla warfare to which he is going to be subjected, by the New Labour elite and by the British business community. In my opinion, it is from the countries on the periphery of the Eurozone that there may be a chance to see social democrats veer to the left. In Portugal, already, the socialists have been compelled to form an alliance with the radical left in order to replace the right in government. This experiment might fail, of course; still, it is only if and where they will have to collaborate with political forces that stand on their left, and in the context of populations hard hit by austerity programs, that socialists and social democrats may take the risk of mending their doctrine.

MF: Moving from doctrinal to strategic, or even tactical, issues, very recent events indicate that different social democratic parties are exploring different options. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn is not only trying to revive the “old” Labour Party but also turn it into a receptacle, or at least an umbrella, for all the “new” social movements that the New Labour had helped push to the margins of the polity. In Portugal, but also in some Spanish municipalities, the socialists are cautiously forming alliances with the parties situated on their left. In France, especially since the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015, François Hollande and Manuel Valls seem to believe that espousing the extremely right-wing program of their conservative rivals in the name of national unity is their only chance of survival. In Italy and in Germany, Matteo Renzi and the leaders of the SPD attempt to take advantage of the rift created by Angela Merkel with regard to the “refugee crisis” in order to present themselves, if not as her real followers, at least as the voices of neoliberal reason “with a human face.”

What do you make of these contrasted experiments and how do you envision their fate and their ability to sway other members of the social democratic “family”?

FE: Your question raises the issue of the homogeneity of the social-democratic family – which is rather weak. Aside from the “historical” varieties of socialism and social democracy – the social democrats of northern Europe vs. the socialists of southern Europe – the PES has expanded eastward, brought into the family parties of eastern and central Europe that, while happy to be granted the social democratic label, have little in common with the political culture and the history of their western European partners. However, among the latter, the differences, which were once very pronounced, have gradually vanished: the mass parties in the north have lost their specificity while the parties in the south have lowered their ideological profile. Today, what we have pretty much everywhere in the EU is a collection of center-left parties essentially preoccupied with the defense of their electoral space. It is therefore not surprising that different national contexts, insofar as they offer different opportunities and impose a different set of constraints, will produce contrasting tactics – especially if we take into account the fact that the ideological and strategic baselines which used to unite the social democratic “family” have been reduced to precious little.

If we only consider the core countries of the EU, we can say that the distinctive features of the infamous Third Way have been modified but that they have hardly ceased to inform the doctrine of social democratic parties. For instance, the term “predistribution” is making the rounds right now in social democratic circles: what it refers to is a type of public action that seeks to prevent inequalities rather than remedy them. Though in itself, the notion of predistribution has real transformative potential, it is highly likely that only a watered-down version will be appropriated by policy-makers and spin doctors in other words, predistribution will be used to justify the scaling back of social protections a posteriori and, by that token, bolster, once again, the meritocratic model of “equal opportunity” (as opposed to “equal outcome”).

In some instances, social democratic parties could also be tempted by an even more conservative turn. Such was the case in Great Britain, however fleetingly, with the short-lived appearance of the so-called Blue Labour – predicated on the revival of solidarity among grass-root communities and the glorification of small entrepreneurial enterprises. In France, the fact that the country is militarily involved on several fronts – from Mali to Syria – and that it has been the target of terrorist attacks have persuaded the socialist leadership to promote a spirit of “republican” national unity that essentially amounts to a law and order agenda. The recent evolution of the French government is in fact quite striking, though it will probably come to a dead-end soon: indeed, François Hollande’s project of passing a constitutional amendment whereby bi-nationals born in France could be deprived of their French nationality if they were convicted of terrorism faces a strong opposition from socialist elected representatives as well as other rank and files – including some who had hitherto remained loyal even in the face of the notoriously neoliberal supply-side measures taken by the government. However, the posture currently adopted by the French executive – a relatively moderate brand of neoliberalism wrapped in abstract professions of humanism – could be an efficient positioning for social democrats, at least in countries where the conservative parties are embracing radical stances and where issues of national or cultural identities prove particularly abrasive.

MF: In the two books you have co-edited – The Handbook of Social Democracy in the European Union and European Social Democracy During the Global Economic Crisis – you give a strikingly bleak picture of the state in which social democratic parties find themselves throughout Europe: while equally deprived of ideological guidelines and of a stable sociological anchoring, they seem unwilling to call upon labor unions, social movements or left-leaning intellectuals to reinvent an agenda.7The last question that comes to mind is thus the following:

Why is it that, with the exception of the Greek PASOK, social democratic parties are not collapsing more quickly and more dramatically?

FE: First, not all long-term sociological evolutions have been detrimental to the interests of the social democratic parties. The weakening of the organized working class is often cited as a major trend, but small agricultural and industrial production units are also on the wane, while wage earners in the service sector have been on the rise. Even more importantly, the decline of religious practice in Europe – and thus of the influence of churches – as well as the large proportion of the electoral body that is now made of people who were socialized after 1968 are factors that clearly favor the left. Furthermore, social democrats have proved capable of opening their agenda to new democratic claims – regarding gender, sexuality, race and ecology. Of course, feminists, minority activists and environmentalists may balk upon reading my last statement, since the way in which social democratic parties embrace their causes is often cautious at best. Just as with economic issues – a domain where social democrats have substituted the prospect of redistribution, there again at best, for the promise of overcoming capitalism – with regard to discriminations, the social democrats’ agenda is merely about mending and not about transforming the way in which identities are socially reproduced. Nevertheless, the various groups who benefit from the reforms they support, modest as they are, often welcome them, if only in comparison with what the other political parties have to offer. For their part, the communist parties were very slow to adapt to sociological transformations of the western European democracies – and thus to the social movements borne out of these transformations. Altogether, in a field essentially comprised of less progressive parties (or even more conservative ones) with respect to issues pertaining to cultural liberalism or local democracy, social democracy often represents the most credible political outlet. In France as in Great Britain, Germany or Sweden, socialists and social democrats are massively overrepresented among “ethnic minority” voters.

The credibility afforded to social democratic parties comes from their status of governing party, which most of them earned after World War II. This status bestows upon them a kind of “presumption of competence” and also provides them with a number of resources: they have access to more ample financial resources than their less institutionally rooted competitors, they benefit from the bi-partisan structure of many electoral systems, which typically favor historically dominant parties (this is notably the case in the UK or in France), they receive greater media exposure than newcomers, and, for all these reasons, they tend to attract career-seeking communication and public policy experts.

Still, regarding the credibility factor, I would add that, while the social democrats’ increasing closeness to the business community may prove costly in the voting booths, sometimes, it can also help them avert potential disasters. Insofar as financial markets and business leaders are endowed with enormously powerful means of retaliation, a social democratic government would clearly be at risk if it were not in a position to soften the stance of capital owners in case of a conflict over policy choices. For the economic havoc wrought by business and financial institutions would probably lead to its own marginalization. This is probably what went through Alexis Tsipras’ mind in the summer of 2015. Ultimately, my point is that social democratic parties have been relatively successful in embracing the evolutions of European societies, and in showing a reassuring face to those segments of the population whose voter turnout is steady and high – namely the elderly and the middle class. In this way, they have renewed their electoral clientele, even if the latter’s size is gradually declining (as is also the case for its conservative rivals, by the way!).

In the Greek case, the magnitude of the social and economic crisis was such, and the ensuing collapse of the PASOK’s crony system was so swift, that the party has suddenly become an “anachronism” in the eyes of its traditional supporters. What happened in Greece was what Antonio Gramsci called a “crisis of authority.” This is not yet the case in other parts of Europe, even in the most fragile countries of the Union – namely, those situated on the periphery of the Eurozone and whose transition to liberal democracy is relatively recent. In Spain, for instance, the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) didn’t suffer a “pasokification.” However, the gap between the socialists and Podemos (the party of the alternative left) has shrunk to less than three points in the last general elections, and the number of seats obtained by the Spanish socialists is the lowest they ever got since the beginning of the post-dictatorial era.

Translated by Rebekah Smith

Recommended citation: Escalona, Fabien (interviewed by Michel Feher). “A Case of ‘Path Dependence’: Social Democracy in Western Europe.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Conspicuous Absence: Social Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

For more than three decades, European social democrats have been lost in triangulation. Caught off guard by the “Conservative Revolution” of the early 1980s, they first tried to convince themselves that the social havoc wrought by market deregulations and supply-side incentives would soon eat away at the electoral appeal of the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In time, however, the leaders of socialist, labor and social democratic parties became persuaded that their own Keynesian creed was outdated – that the pursuit of full employment combined with stable jobs, decent salaries, and a solid social safety net was no longer an option in a globalized economy where financial capital flowed freely to what its handlers saw as the most attractive destinations. Thus, ever since, the members of the Party of European Socialists (PES) have been looking, often quite desperately, for some workable compromise between the values they still claim to cherish and the neoliberal policies that they implement as scrupulously as their rivals on the right.

The questions we have asked Jean-Michel De Waele, who has co-edited European Social Democracy During the Global Economic Crisis: Renovation or Resignation? and The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy in the European Union, address the ongoing identity crisis of the center-left: they seek to retrace its history, to examine its present dynamics, and to speculate about its possible outcomes on the European political landscape.

AW: In the introduction to European Social Democracy During the Global Economic Crisis, you write that European social democratic parties capitulated to neoliberal orthodoxy (deregulation of capital and labor markets, privatization of public goods and services) well before the 2008 financial crisis. When did this surrender occur and how would you explain it?

JMDW: The ideological surrender of the social democrats dates back to the first years of neoliberal hegemony, in other words, to the “conservative revolution” that brought Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to power. Beginning in the mid-1980s, many social democrats thought that there was some element of truth in the neoliberal critique of the welfare state, and that the left would be well advised to adopt it. The social democrats’ conversion was fully completed in the 1990s, long before the 2008 financial crisis, when “third way” European leaders, like Gerhard Schroeder and above all Tony Blair, came to power. Blair’s vision of “New Labor” purported to be a social democratic response to neo-liberalism. But it’s a response that actually integrates most of the ideological assumptions of neoliberalism.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 also contributed to the ideological drift among social democrats. Until then, communist parties had been constantly prodding the social democrats to move to the left, even if their political weight varied from one country to the next and even if regimes practicing State socialism were being increasingly discredited. When the Soviet bloc collapsed, socialist parties no longer had to worry about competition from the left. They believed that the progressive vote was theirs once and for all and they could therefore veer toward the center in order to attract “moderate” voters without losing their traditional support base. I continue to believe that one of the merits of communist parties in Europe, between 1945 and 1989, was to push social democrats towards the left and keep them from becoming an American-style democratic party.

Finally, the European project itself was an important factor in the evolution of the socialists. One must remember that, in the beginning, not all social democratic parties were pro-Europe. There were big debates within the French Socialist Party, but also among Swedish social democrats and others. The creation of the European Union was largely the work of the Christian Democrats and the entrepreneurial elite on the right. Neither Jean Monnet, nor Alcide De Gasperi was a social democrat. And the same can be said of Paul Henri Spaak, despite his official partisan affiliation. Thus, there was a real reticence among important currents within the social democratic parties in relation to this nascent Union, in which they did not recognize themselves. Then, suddenly, socialists almost unanimously converted to the idea of “Europe.” From this moment on, in the name of prioritizing the development of the European Union, they never stopped making compromises. When you have a supranational framework, the power dynamic is much more complicated than it is at the national level. Also, once the representatives of social democrats understood that they could not share power with the right and hold onto their own convictions at the same time, they progressively renounced their identity. To justify their conversion, particularly in their own eyes, they hung on to the idea that the creation of a large European market was a necessary precondition for a “social” Europe. But it was a fool’s bargain, or at least a mistaken calculation, because, while the wider market has now existed for a long time, European social policy remains non-existent.

AW: According to Joseph Stiglitz, Europe is having a harder time getting over the economic crisis and its consequences than the US because neoliberalism is so deeply ingrained in the European Union, in its political and monetary structures. As a result, the EU finds itself completely helpless in the face of a crisis caused by a neoliberal system that pervades its institutions. Do you agree with this analysis?

JMDW: Absolutely. And I think that, as a consequence of its allegiance to the modus operandi of the EU, the social-democratic software is infected with the neoliberal virus. Many political leaders who claim to belong to the left have carried out neoliberal policies. At the end of the 1990s, Lionel Jospin, who was then France’s Prime Minister, for example, privatized the French economy more than any right-leaning government ever had – or has since.

As long as social democrats don’t take stock of what they have become – of the goals and hopes they have abandoned – they cannot move forward. They must reckon with the neoliberal policies they have carried out, and continue to carry out, and they must recognize them for what they are. But this is a debate that the European left will not initiate. Actually, the European left has come to avoid all forms of debate, a truly stunning development. The confrontation of ideas is a culture that has completely disappeared among social democrats.

Another central challenge for the socialist left is clearly to take a position vis-à-vis Europe. A third way needs to be found – though certainly not Blair’s third way – between euro-skepticism and the status quo, which involves the joint management of the Union with the conservatives (German Christian Democrats, French Republicans, the Spanish People’s Party) that make up the European People’s Party. So far, the socialists’ attachment to Europe has translated into a lukewarm stance – at once deprived of a clear direction and risk-averse. For a regeneration to happen, they must rediscover that they are the party of reform: reforming society, after all, was the initial raison d’être of social democrats. That is the stance that set them apart from the revolutionaries as well as from the conservatives. Today, however, the only reforms that are being talked about are the infamous “structural reforms” demanded by the neoliberals.

AW: You write that, in light of the electoral losses experienced by social-democratic parties throughout Western Europe after the financial crisis, the chances of a return to Keynesian stimulus programs and fiscal redistribution policies are dim, at least in the near future. But is it really because of disappointing electoral results that the discourse of European social democrats has moved so far to the right? Or is the reverse true – namely that social democrats lost support for the timidity of their opposition to the policies responsible for the financial crisis in 2008, and for the absence of alternative propositions in their programs?

JMDW: Obviously, election results penalized social democrats that were governing in 2008 because of their responses, or lack thereof, to the crisis. Yet, in the immediate wake of the crisis, most observers believed that the failure of neo-liberal policies, insofar as it was recognized as such, gave social democrats a great opportunity to present themselves as the much-awaited alternative. The problem, however, was that they had nothing to propose. Not having tried to develop their own vision for the thirty years preceding the crisis, they simply had nothing to offer, no alternative project. As a result, the collapse of financial markets did not produce a confrontation between the right and the left, quite the contrary. What came out of the chaos, in the various countries of the EU, was a climate of national unity – with the purpose of saving the banks and of preventing small savers from losing everything they owned. Then, once financial institutions were bailed out, it was up to ordinary wage earners and tax-payers to clean up the mess and pave the way for the restoration of the same system that had produced the crisis. Never has the intellectual bankruptcy of the social democrats been so obvious than in the beginning of the “Great Recession.” It became clear that, instead of being the proponents of a political alternative, the social democratic left had become nothing more than an alternative cast of characters meant to deliver the same policies as their right wing rivals.

The social democrats’ loss of imagination is not limited to economic questions. Socialists have also stopped distinguishing themselves with respect to education policy, despite the fact that education is the main tool in the fight against inequality. They are not particularly concerned with the question of democracy, with the issue of what democracy should look like in the 21st century. The socialists don’t even want to seem more hospitable than the right when it comes to immigration policy. In Denmark, for example, which used to be a beacon of progressiveness and an especially open society, the social democrats are now doing all they can to show that they are capable of implementing measures that are as restrictive as those of the conservatives and their far right allies.

AW: Traditionally, the social democrats were affiliated with powerful trade unions whose members formed their core constituency. While trade unionism has been declining in Europe, which has of course contributed to the problems of the socialist parties, over the years, a number of new social movements have emerged. Have social democratic parties managed, or at least tried, to connect with them?

JMDW: There is indeed no lack of innovative initiatives stemming from civil society that could help the political left find a second wind – the movements against neoliberal globalization that came to life in the 1990s, the Spanish Indignados and the various Occupy movements in 2011, etc. Unfortunately, however, there is hardly any connection between the proponents of these initiatives and social democratic parties. The latter are either afraid or simply not interested in social movements, unless they think they can poach one of their representatives because he or she is likely to look good on television. To the extent that they pay attention to activists, the social democratic apparatuses are merely interested in turning them into their own rank and file.

AW: Let’s now turn to central and eastern Europe, where the situation of the social democratic left seems to be even grimmer than in western Europe.

JMDW: In eastern European countries, the question is rather whether social democracy exists at all. In Poland, a large European country, the left no longer has a single representative in parliament. Likewise in Slovakia, even Robert Fico, the Prime Minister, is a member of the Party of European Socialists. Fico, we should remember, is a man who, for many years, made an alliance not with the right but with the extreme right to stay in power. And the situation is hardly any better in Bulgaria and in Rumania, not to mention Hungary. In eastern Europe, the left has completely lost the battle of ideas. Societies are clearly moving to the right. The social democrats are partly responsible for this evolution insofar as their own drift to the right has precipitated the conservative turn of the societies within which they no longer stand for an alternative. In central Europe, however, the main problem lies elsewhere.

With the exception of the Czech Republic, social democracy never managed to take hold in the former Soviet bloc – except in name. The politicians who call themselves social democrats are all former communists who hastily reformed after 1989. The parties to which they belong have been in power for 45 years. After the USSR crumbled, their central committees held meetings in the morning to dissolve the Communist Party and in the afternoon, as if by magic, they had all become social democrats. And today, the same people are still in place. There has been no turnover of political personnel. The leadership of these parties has remained essentially the same since even before 1989; with the exception of a few new additions, they are for the most part the children and friends of the old guard. These political formations operate in a closed circuit, they sustain a post-communist environment, but are completely lacking in what one could call “left culture.” Their sole raison d’être is to fill a space: since liberal democracy supposes the existence of an electoral market where a right and a left compete, and since the left side of the political spectrum was otherwise unoccupied, the apparatchiks of the old communist parties decided to make it their own.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Western social democrats went to see the old leaders of the Stalinist regimes and brought them into the fold. By that time, the line of the Party of European Socialists (PES) was already devoid of daring propositions, so it was not complicated for these new members to adopt the party line. All they had to do was declare that it is important to reduce inequalities, but without getting specific about how to achieve such a goal, and to claim that peace and democracy are at the heart of the European project: anyone can do that, especially seasoned apparatchiks who tend to be quite good at following the party line without asking questions. The elites of the ex-Soviet bloc were thus easily “retooled” and dubbed socialists by their “brothers” in Western Europe. Moreover, being recognized as certified social democrats helped them defend themselves when they were questioned for their past. “How can you doubt our loyalty to democracy” they protested, “when the social democratic leaders of western Europe recognize us as members of their family?”

Obviously, their understanding of social democratic doctrine was often lacking. I remember talking to Adrian Năstase, the former Romanian PM, currently in prison for corruption, while he was in power. He explained to me that he had wanted to pass the flat tax, so that everyone would pay 18% of their income in taxes. Of course, the flat tax is one of the most extreme neoliberal policies imaginable. Even Margaret Thatcher wasn’t able to pass it. When she tried, she faced resistance within her own party. A number of British Tories found it indecent that a millionaire and a blue-collar worker would be taxed at the same rate. However, Adrian Năstase saw the flat tax as a measure promoting equality, and thus in keeping with his idea of social democracy.

Fiscal policy is not the only domain within which ex-communist-social democrats are a bit disoriented. In Poland, after the end of the communist regime, when the first right-leaning government passed an extremely restrictive law with respect to the right to an abortion, the supposedly social democratic opposition did not think it wise to protest. Neither did they try to reform the law when they came to power a few years later. To justify their inertia, they invoked the influence of the Catholic Church and their own responsibility of keeping the peace; yet, the statistics show that Polish churches were continuously losing members and that the young Polish people led the same lifestyles as other young Europeans. Regardless, however, former communists refrained from fighting for a right that was actually recognized under Communism. Under such conditions, how could one expect a political left to emerge? And how could feminist organizations receive public support when the party that is supposed to care about women’s rights ignored their issues?

Finally, we should remember that every time the social democrats have been in power in central Europe, they have striven to disassociate themselves from the “old regime” from which they stem by showing how modern they are; and to demonstrate their “modernity,” what they have done is to conduct privatizations at a record rate. None of this contributes to the emergence of a left political culture.

AW: If the political left exists only in name, are we witnessing the emergence of more authentic alternatives in central and eastern Europe, be they radical parties like Podemos in Spain or Occupy-like movements?

JMDW: Not really. In these countries the level of politicization is quite weak and electoral participation is catastrophically low. This is understandable. In central Europe, after the fall of the communist regimes, all the parties said the same thing: “Long live Europe!” For years, at least up until they joined the EU, the debate in these countries revolved almost exclusively around who would get them into the EU the fastest. There was practically no discussion about ideas, whether on the right or the left, or about the modalities of the post-communist transition. In order to attract votes, all parties proclaimed the same thing: “Vote for us, we’ll get the country into the EU faster than our opponents.” The only other debate was about the personal histories of the different political leaders, who mutually accused each other of having a Nazi past or Nazi parents or, more frequently, a Communist past. When political life is reduced to such questions, citizens are not drawn to participate.

As for new political movements or parties to the left of the “socialists,” Poland is currently the only country where something of the sort may arise. The party Razem (“together”), that claims a likeness to Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, has made a remarkable entrance into the political landscape in the last few months. Created by left-leaning citizens in May 2015, they were ignored by the media at first, until a televised debate in October featuring the spokespersons of the eight parties competing in the general elections. The debate was held five days before the vote. One of the leaders of Razem, Adrian Zandberg, who represented his party during this debate, was so successful that the party’s website was visited by thousands of Polish citizens that same evening. Razem surprised everyone. While the polls gave the party 1.2% during the campaign, in the end it came up with 3.6% of the vote. It is the only such example at the moment. When I go to central Europe, I’m presented with some parties supposedly on the left of the spectrum, but it is shocking to see to what extent there is no habitus of social conflict and struggles in these parties.

Adrian Zandberg of the Razem party speaking at a rally
Adrian Zandberg, Polish historian and leader of the radical-left party Razem, speaks at a rally in October 2015. (Jacek Herok/newspix.pl)

In this regard, the socialist party in Bulgaria is an interesting case. It is a party that has a considerable social base and an undeniably rich history. The cultural heritage of the party is apparently maintained through a yearly summer festival. And indeed, the loyalty to the party’s roots is undeniable: tens of thousands of people travel to the spot where, in 1891, the socialist party was founded. It’s fascinating. On Bulgarian roads you see great-grandmothers, grandmothers, entire families on their way to the festival, in the middle of the mountains. But once you arrive, there is not a single stand, no distribution of political tracts. You can’t buy any books and there are no representatives of feminist groups or environmentalists, no foreign delegations. Put simply, there is nothing political about it, other than a neutral speech given by the leader of the party. When the speech is over, the public sings the national anthem. And the day ends with a round of folk dancing.

AW: Even the ferocity of Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, and those who emulate him in Poland, did not have the effect of bringing about opposition movements?

JMDW: The problem is the lack of an activist tradition: decades of communist rule have almost completely depoliticized these societies. Furthermore, with respect to Hungary, we must stress that the Hungarian socialist party is largely responsible for the situation that brought Viktor Orbán to power. The socialists truly pillaged the Hungarian state when they were in government: corruption was endemic among the party leaders and they privatized almost every public company.

Two protestors resist a police water cannon in Budapest
Protesters resist a police water cannon during a demonstration in Budapest, October 23, 2006. A wave of anti-government protests began after a private speech by the Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was broadcasted on the radio. In the recording, Gyurcsány confessed that his party had lied to win the 2006 general election and had achieved nothing during the previous four years. (Getty Images/AFP)

In Hungary and Poland, it is Orbán and Kaczyński, the arch co-conservative and authoritarian leaders, who appropriate the “social” discourse, not the left. Like Marine Le Pen in France, they claim to pay attention to the fate of ordinary pensioners and small-scale farmers, posing as the protectors of the victims of deregulation and free markets. In other words, they paint themselves as the rampart against the neoliberal policies of their rivals, in particular the former nomenklatura communists who are the social democrats of today – and who are often millionaires, like Gordon Bajnai, a wealthy investment banker and the last Hungarian Prime Minister from the socialist ranks.

The social democrats of western Europe are also responsible for the absence of a left worthy of the name in central and eastern Europe. When former Warsaw Pact countries entered the EU, the priority of the Party of European Socialists (PES) was to find powerful, well-organized allies in order to balance the influence of their partner and rival, the conservative European Popular Party, in European institutions and especially the European Parliament. Thus, for reasons of expediency, they chose former Communists hastily converted to social democracy over budding movements and parties that, while fledgling, actually belonged to the left.

In Poland, for example, there was a collective called Solidarność Pracy (“Labour Solidarity”), which became Unia Pracy (“Labour Union”), a political movement composed of left-leaning trade unionists. In light of their agenda and experience, they probably would have been capable of introducing the social and democratic issues that are currently absent from the public debate. And contrary to the old apparatchiks, the members of Unia Pracy could not be accused of having been involved with the Communist regime. However, because they were still young and small as an organization, western social democrats did not provide them with any aid: instead of a principled long-term investment, they opted for whitewashing the old nomenklatura, on the grounds that they were already fully operational.

AW: What happened to these movements?

JMDW: Without external support, they were never able to impose themselves as an independent force on the left. The German social democrats, through their powerful foundations, are especially responsible for letting these small organizations wither away. After 1989, the two main German foundations, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, associated with the SPD, and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, associated with the CDU, invested massively, financially and materially, in the political space left vacant by the fall of the communist regimes. They used their influence and considerable financial resources to redraw the political landscape of central and eastern European countries according to a German blueprint. In this process, and to the detriment of the smaller albeit more promising collectives, former communists were chosen to play the part of the social democrats. That hollow and largely corrupt characters got to represent the “left” goes a long way toward explaining why it is the extreme right that is best able to exploit the public’s hostility to neoliberal reforms.

AW: While some allegedly social democratic parties are in fact the most impudent exponents of neoliberal “modernization,” isn’t it the case that others tend to flirt with a pretty crude form of nationalism – such as Robert Fico’s party in Slovakia?

JMDW: Yes; Robert Fico’s SMER-SD is socialist only in name. He may be a member of the PES, but it is only because the social democrats, at the European level, are willing to anoint almost any party that does not adhere to the EPP in order to enhance their position in the competition with the conservatives. And when their unsavory partners slip up, even when they indulge in racist or xenophobic outbursts, the socialists simply look the other way.

Such an attitude, within the social democratic club, extends beyond the confines of Europe. After all, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian President, as well as his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, were both members of the Socialist International. So, why should Robert Fico stand out? Of course, his openly racist policies vis-à-vis the Roma are embarrassing – but not embarrassing enough to treat him more harshly than the EPP treats Viktor Orbán. Besides, I’m not sure that the position of Manuel Valls, the French and socialist Prime Minister who has explained that going back to Romania and Bulgaria is the Roma’s calling, is so far apart from Fico’s.

A meeting of the Visegrad group, Viktor Orban, Bohuslav Sobotka, Beata Szydło, Robert Fico
The four heads of countries in the so-called Visegrad group meet to discuss their refusal of refugee quotas in Prague, December 3, 2015: Viktor Orbán, the right-wing PM of Hungary; Bohuslav Sobotka, the Social Democratic PM of the Czech Republic; Beata Szydło, the Conservative and Eurosceptic PM of Poland; and Robert Fico, the Social-democratic PM of Slovakia. (P. Tracz/KPRM/Wikimedia Commons)

AW: How do you explain that central and eastern European countries, especially the Baltic states, all adopted such harsh positions vis-à-vis Greece during the discussions about restructuring of the Greek debt?

JMDW: Indeed they were incredibly harsh. At the same time, the arguments that the leaders of eastern and central Europe used to justify their hard-line positions were well received domestically. First we need to remember that these countries are for the most part poorer than Greece which has a GNP per capita of $22,000, compared to $18,000 for Slovakia, $15,000 for Latvia, less than $14,000 for Poland and Hungary, $7,500 for Bulgaria, etc. As a result, large sections of the population in these countries were not inclined to let the Greek government evade its obligations when they themselves had suffered through especially drastic austerity programs. In Latvia, for example, salaries were reduced by 40% after the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, they largely bought the narrative according to which Greek authorities were to blame for the state of their country’s public finances.

In a deeper sense, the people of eastern Europe believe that they have pulled themselves out of communism by their own bootstraps, and that western Europe never showed much solidarity with them when they were subjected to the Soviet rule. Moreover they believe that when they were finally invited to join the EU, member-states including Greece, imposed extremely tough conditions on them, and did so particularly for the sake of protecting western European farmers. Finally, since they have become members of the EU, they feel that the dominant countries of the Union have exploited their economic weaknesses: German, French, and Italian firms all take advantage of their qualified yet underpaid workforce. In short, resentment is powerful and widespread. And Greece paid for it.

AW: Despite the dark picture you have painted, do you believe there is still hope for social democracy in Europe? Will the social democratic ideology be reborn? And if so, how?

JMDW: As far as I’m concerned, it’s impossible to be on the left and not be optimistic. It’s one of the fundamental differences between the left and the right. The left is optimistic about human nature, whereas the right does not trust it. I believe that the left never dies, even when it is doing very badly. Also, crises can be salutary. That said, the renewal of the left is only possible under certain conditions: Firstly, political parties must relearn to open up and to move beyond their own partisan structure. They need to seek rejuvenation by exposing themselves to social movements, intellectuals, and artists. Secondly, the momentum must be European, but at the same time attentive to differences forged by history and geography. The relationship to Russia will never be the same for Spain and for Poland. Similarly, the relationship to Africa will never be the same for Poland and for Spain. Thirdly, the left must renew its repertoire of ideas in order to be able to once again mobilize the public and at the same time, rediscover a taste for “the struggle,” that is, the courage to accept conflict.

While social democracy may not be the driving element of this renewal, will it at least be capable of contributing to it? It is hard to say. For this to be possible, social democrats must examine their track record and reckon with what they have become and the compromises and the mistakes they have made. However, I don’t think they will find the courage to be lucid until they experience even more catastrophic defeats in the polls – especially if it is the radical left that takes advantage of their losses.

AW: Does your optimism, while measured and conditional, also apply to eastern Europe?

JMDW: The advantage of central and eastern Europe is that they are starting from scratch, so to speak. They can create a European left of the 21st century without having to examine past failures, because up until now there was no left to speak of.

Now, if a progressive movement were to appear in central Europe, would their western European counterparts pay attention? Unfortunately, there is good reason to doubt it.

Translated by Lucie Kroening

Recommended citation: De Waele, Jean-Michel (interviewed by Aurélie Windels). “Conspicuous Absence: Social Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

The End of the European Left? Social Democracy, Hope, Disillusion, and Europe

The position adopted by left parties towards the European Union continues to raise important questions for both those parties and for the EU itself. What are left parties seeking to achieve in their support, rejection or proposed reforms of the European Union? What is it about the European Union that makes it so amenable, or hostile (depending on your viewpoint), to a left agenda? How, if at all, can the left parties relate to the European Union without receding to nationalism in their opposition, or to naiveté in their support and proposed reforms? And these are questions that have been repeatedly asked throughout much of the history of European integration. Indeed, European integration was for a long time considered by many socialist parties – including more moderate social democratic parties – to be problematic due to its status as a “capitalist club.” At some point between the 1970s and 1990s, however, socialist or social democratic parties came to almost universally accept that the European integration was a progressive project, or at least had the potential to become one. Today, the same could be said for radical left parties as well, with only a handful retaining a position of outright hostility to the European Union.1 Almost all European left parties now seem to accept that membership in the EU is something to be embraced or accepted, and certainly not something to be overcome.

With the ascendance of neoliberalism across Europe from the 1980s onwards, the European Union came to be viewed – especially by social democratic parties – as an institutional antidote to globalisation and the threat that it, along with the ever-present possibility of “capital flight,” posed to progressive public policy. Yet, we might consider this turn to the EU to be somewhat surprising. At the same time as European integration came to be viewed by left parties as a means to challenge the unfettered market, the EU (or EC, prior to 1993) was also responsible for the creation of a single European market that would further threaten a number of the achievements reached by the European labour movement in the more favourable pre-1980 period (Scharpf 2010). The promise of Social Europe had been the carrot used by European officials and their supporters to encourage left party support for a (to-be-reformed) European Union since the late 1980s. Yet, throughout the 1990s, and during the first decade of the twenty first century, Social Europe began to appear as an increasingly distant and unrealisable dream.

It is within this longer term context, and in both directions, therefore, that we should evaluate the effect of the interaction between left parties and the European Union. The lessons that can be learned from social democratic parties’ self-declared and long-running ambitions and attempts to reform the EU can help us consider how people on the left should relate to the institutions of the European Union today.

The Left and Europe: A Brief History of the Social Democratic Embrace of Social Europe

Socialist and social democratic parties started out their relationship with the European project in a cautious mode. Whilst most parties avoided outright hostility, there can be no doubt that the degree of enthusiasm witnessed by social democratic parties towards the EU today was not matched at earlier points in the history of the European project. In the UK, for instance, the Labour Party opposed the early steps taken towards integration, including the Schuman Plan, the European Defence Community and the European Political Community. Labour Party leader, Hugh Gaitskell famously declared in 1962 that membership in the European Community would mean “the end of a thousand years of history” (Labour Party, 1962). During the 1970s, most of the Labour Party leadership supported EC membership, but this was in a context in which most of its membership opposed it (Bailey 2009a: 95–96). Similarly, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), under the leadership of Kurt Schumacher during the immediate post-war period, was sceptical of the initial steps towards European integration. The German SPD opposed the Council of Europe and criticized the Schuman Plan and the European Coal and Steel Community, which it viewed as too narrow in scope and therefore as an impediment to socialism (Moeller, 1996: 35). In France, the socialist party (SFIO) took an ambivalent position towards the early stages of European integration. Despite formal support of the initiative (indeed, socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet was central to the negotiation of the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Community),”there remained a feeling of unease at being affiliated with a liberal, capitalist association of nations” (Cole 1996: 72). Similarly, during the 1970s, the alliance between the French Parti Socialiste (PS) and the Eurosceptic French Communist Party (PCF) required the continuation of this ambivalent stance towards the European project, witnessing “the flowering of a particular type of political rhetoric in certain sections of the party that confused socialism and national independence in a manner inimical to the EC” (Cole 1996: 72). In Sweden, social democratic opposition to membership in the EC remained in place up until the country’s application to join the Community in 1990. And ahead of the 1995 referendum on its membership, the Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP) saw two formal “yes” and “no” organisations divide the party; the “no” camp viewed EC membership as a threat to the Swedish welfare model (Bieler 2000: 112).

Collage of SPD political leaders' campaign posters
Official campaign posters display images of European social democratic leaders: Italian PM Matteo Renzi, French President François Hollande, former British PM Tony Blair, Portuguese PM António Costa, Sweden PM Stefan Löfven, former German Chancellor Gehrard Schröder, and Spanish PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez.

Despite their initial hesitancy towards the project of European integration, however, social democratic parties moved to adopt a much more pro-European position throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Bailey 2009a: ch.4). As neoliberal globalisation was increasingly perceived, by social democrats and the leaders of social democratic parties, to have imposed substantial constraints on the viability of social democratic programmes at the level of the nation-state, commentators began to observe that “majorities in one [social democratic] party after another have come to perceive European integration as a means for projecting social democratic goals in a liberalizing world economy” (Hooghe, Marks and Wilson 2002: 975).In the UK, trade unions and the left parties came to view European integration as a means through which to challenge Thatcher and Thatcherism following the transformation of British industrial relations during the 1980s. This was especially the case following the initiative taken by European Commission President Jacques Delors in addressing the national Trades Union Congress in 1988 (George and Rosamond 1992). Following President Mitterrand’s infamous policy U-turn in 1983,2 the French PS openly sought to promote a stronger European social model and create a more substantive European “economic government” (Dyson and Featherstone 1992: ch.2; Clift 2006). In Spain, the Spanish socialist party (PSOE) was widely considered to be the most pro-European party during the 1990s, despite many within the party having “negative concerns about the capitalist and imperialist forces promoting European integration” during the earlier post-Franco transition period (Ruiz Jiménez and de Haro 2011). There was, therefore, a general trend within the social democratic parties across the European Union: from an initial caution towards European integration, to an eventual embrace. By 2002 the observation was increasingly made that “Social Democratic Parties have shifted in favour of European integration during the past 15 years” (Hooghe, Marks and Wilson, 2002: 975).

In explaining the social democratic embrace of European integration, we need also to pay attention to social democratic parties’ somewhat contradictory pursuit of “Social Europe.” This was the name given by many on the left to the series of reforms that would need to be made to the European Union in order to ensure that it was an institution favouring equality, redistribution and social cohesion. As I have argued elsewhere, the goal of Social Europe was part of a broader transition from “traditional” to “new” or “Third Way” social democracy (Bailey 2009a). Thus, during roughly the same time that the transition away from Euroscepticism or Euro-ambivalence was occurring, social democratic parties were also abandoning their earlier policy and ideological priorities, including the promotion of organised labour, the welfare state, Keynesian demand management, and interventionist industrial policy. Under Third Way social democracy, therefore, there would be a greater role for the private sector, greater conditionality placed upon social security, and a de-prioritisation of the interests of organised labour (Arndt 2013: 44). It was the declared pursuit of “Social Europe,” however, which enabled social democratic parties and party elites to maintain and tie together several contradictory positions, each of which contributed to the ongoing attempt to sustain social democratic parties even though they were suffering from a growing number of fundamental problems. In particular, the declared pursuit of Social Europe enabled Third Way social democrats to achieve a number of potentially contradictory outcomes. First, they could highlight (their acceptance of) the necessity of a move away from the “traditional” goals of social democracy (which were increasingly perceived as either programmatically impracticable or electorally unappealing), on the grounds that “globalisation” had rendered those longer-standing ambitions unachievable. Second, they could simultaneously appeal to their traditional supporters (and especially those supporters who might question the benefits of continued support for a party that had abandoned those earlier ambitions) by declaring that some of the key traditional social democratic goals could be achieved at some point in the unspecified future, and outside the frameworks of the nation-state, through a coordinated process of supranational cooperation with other European social democratic parties and party actors within the European Union. Third, the declared pursuit of Social Europe could be made safe in the knowledge that EU-level institutional constraints would inhibit the development of more substantively redistributive policies, thereby ensuring both that the operation of the single European market would be free from political (or politicised) intervention (and therefore contribute towards the necessary intensification of European capitalism), and also provide an institutional target to be blamed for the subsequent non-realisation of the declared goals of Social Europe. In this sense, therefore, the goal of Social Europe represented an empty, yet important (precisely because it was empty), ambition that acted to sustain European social democracy by covering over its inherent contradictions.

It is this potential – for Third Way support for Social Europe to bring together these potentially contradictory outcomes – that explains the coincidence of both the transition to a Third Way position, and the embrace of Social Europe, both of which occurred at the same time in most countries across much of western Europe (Bailey 1999a: ch.4). Thus, In the UK, the Labour Party transition towards support for European integration took place during the 1980s. It followed the defeat of the party in the general election of 1983, and emerged as part of a broader effort for “modernisation” of that party that was overseen by the party leader, Neil Kinnock, and constituted the groundwork for the subsequent move towards Third Way politics. The effort saw the party move from a general election commitment to seek an exit from the EC in 1983, to the claim in 1989 that “19923 and the Single Market create great opportunities and great challenges for Britain” (Labour Party 1989: 79; for a more detailed discussion, see Bailey, 2009a: 98–106). In Sweden the social democratic government announced in 1990 that it intended to apply for EC membership. The announcement was part of a wider set of measures which marked the move towards a Third Way position, and included the replacement of full employment by low inflation as the party’s top priority, as well as a series of austerity measures (Bailey 2009a: 107; Ryner 2004). In France, the move by President Mitterrand to seek a more substantive European economic government, was part of the 1983 U-turn away from the socialist programme that had been in effect since 1981 (Bailey 2009a: 113). Similarly, in Spain the revision of PSOE ideology during the 1980s was integrally linked to the Spanish accession to the European Community: “the relevance of the workerist/Marxist rhetoric that the PSOE had championed since its days of clandestinity no longer conformed with the party leadership’s new perception of European economic realities” (Marks, 1997: 96). As Holman put it, “each part of the government’s domestic, social, and economic policy was presented and legitimized by reference to the necessity of adjusting Spanish socio-economic and political structures in the light of future membership of the EEC” (Holman, 1996: 80; quoted in Bailey 2009a: 123).

The Unravelling of Social Democracy’s Empty (and Ongoing) Promise of Social Europe

The move by European social democratic parties to adopt a Third Way position in the 1990s was inextricably bound up with the move towards the embrace of Social Europe; the latter acted in part to conceal and obfuscate the long-term failure and increasingly unrealisable nature of the social democratic project, and therefore (in part) provided a source of legitimation for Third Way social democracy. Thus, by the end of the 1990s, most social democratic parties had converted, with some variance, to the Third Way. However, as subsequent developments made the tensions created by their conversion more visible, the Third Way “solution” to the ongoing decline of social democratic parties proved increasingly untenable.

The social democratic adoption of a Third Way agenda initially resulted in electoral success – with the much remarked upon high point of 1999, when 13 out of 15 EU member states were either governed by social democratic parties or by a coalition that included them. The electoral record of the 2000s, however, was much less successful. Indeed, Christoph Arndt has clearly illustrated that the major electoral consequence of the Third Way turn was a sharp decline in the level of support amongst social democratic parties’ core working class voters. This decline contributed to electoral defeats during the first decade of the 2000s in Germany, Sweden, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, and France, and in 2010 in the UK, and in 2011 in Spain and Portugal. Perhaps more fundamentally, as table 1 demonstrates, the average vote share achieved by social democratic parties fell in a large number in European countries. The table tracks the change in vote share in 11 European countries, and compares the last election before (or during) 2000, with the first election after (or on) 2010. It therefore compares the last vote of social democratic parties before the first decade of the 2000s, with their share of the vote after that first decade. With the exception of France and Italy, in every country in the sample there is a decline in the share of votes. Yet, the comparison in the Italian case is complicated by the fact that the Democratic Party was formed during that decade by joining together both the Social Democratic party (DS, which had itself emerged out of the Italian Communist Party [PCI] following the end of the Cold War), and other Christian democratic parties. Thus, during the first decade of the 2000s, among all of the social democratic parties compared, only the French PS can really be said to have improved its vote share. This has been convincingly shown to have occurred as a result of both a rise in abstentions amongst social democratic parties’ core working class voters, and by those voters switching to either parties of the radical left or far right (Arndt 2013; Karreth et al., 2012). The prevailing explanation for these trends is that the move towards a Third Way position had only short-term benefit for social democratic parties. Whilst it allowed the parties to appeal to centrist voters in the short-term, in the longer term it weakened their ideological “brand,” creating a net effect that was largely detrimental to their electoral support. As Karreth et al. have put it, “gains these parties derived from the policy shift toward the middle in the 1990s were short-lived and came at the expense of electoral success in the subsequent decade, mottling the ideological coherence of the parties as political organizations in the process” (2013: 792).

Change in Social Democratic Party vote share during the 2000s.
Change in Social Democratic Party vote share during the 2000s.

As part of this disappointing record, the 2000s also saw the institutional obstacles to Social Europe become increasingly evident. It became more and more difficult for social democrats to claim that the European Union represented an opportunity for progressive policymaking. Yet, the decade had begun with social democratic parties in a position of strength across the institutions of the European Union, and with ambitions correspondingly high. Many placed their hope in the EU’s Lisbon Strategy, which was adopted in 2000 in order to modernise the European economy and promote Social Europe, in part through the pursuit of “sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.” This included the commitment to coordinate social inclusion and social protection policies of the member states. By 2005, however, the process was largely considered to have failed, and a heavily critical review – the Kok Report – saw the Lisbon Strategy “streamlined” so that social cohesion was deprioritised and more emphasis was placed on the market-building elements of the European socio-economic regime. The subsequent “no” votes in referendums on the EU Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands were widely viewed, in part, as rejections of the neoliberal, pro-market tendencies of the European Union, with the debate ahead of the vote prompting a significant and lasting division within the French Parti Socialiste (Bouillaud: 166–67; Crespy 2008; Bailey 2008).4

SPD political leaders campaign posters torn and defaced
Torn and mocked posters of European social democratic party leaders: former German Chancellor Gehrard Schröder, French President François Hollande, former British PM Tony Blair, leader of the Spanish PSOE Pedro Sánchez, French Parti Socialiste, and Italian PM Matteo Renzi.

The onset of the global economic crisis in 2008 was a significant moment in terms of the development of European social democracy. The crisis was widely perceived to have been a result of the excesses of neoliberal globalisation. Under-regulated and over-liberalised housing, financial and trade markets had resulted in the formation of speculative bubbles and economic imbalances that put an end to the idea that unfettered markets would produce equilibrium, economic efficiency, and growth. In the wake of the crisis there emerged a consensus, especially amongst those on the centre left, that the global economy required re-regulation (Giles et al., 2008). This consensus represented a perfect opportunity for social democratic parties to reformulate a more interventionist, regulatory and redistributive agenda and offer an alternative to the Third Way and its tacit acceptance of many of the economic orthodoxies of the neoliberal right. It offered a chance for a renewed commitment to the merits of the European Union and the opportunities that it posed for transnational market regulation. As a result, the consensus could be the catalyst of the political, policy, and regulatory infrastructure that would eliminate the possibility of another large-scale crisis. This apparent opportunity for European social democracy, however, resulted in yet more disappointments. The electoral fortunes of the centre-left did not fare well as a result of the crisis. Social democratic parties found themselves with little to offer the electorate. Their claims to represent an alternative to neoliberalism rang hollow, not least because they had acquiesced (sometimes willingly) to most of its core tenets over the past two decades. Likewise, social democratic parties were hardly convincing when they presented themselves as the voice of economic “responsibility,” since, prior to the financial crisis, they had largely endorsed the economic doctrine that was widely accused of having caused the crash. The key point of this realisation was the 2009 European Parliament elections where, despite expectation of strong social democratic results, the centre-right prevailed.

Following the onset of the global economic crisis, the social democratic parties also fared poorly at the national level. Most parties failed to substantially change their party programmes. Indeed, in a recent overview covering a range of social democratic parties across the European Union, it became clear that, “the prospect of a reintroduction of Keynesian-style reflation, or traditional measures for redistribution, is unlikely in the foreseeable future.” (Bailey et al., 2014: 6) In most cases, the post-crisis period did not bring about any substantial revision of the social democratic party programmes. For instance, as Phillipe Marlière (2014) shows, in the case of the UK (prior to Corbyn’s election as the party leader) the Labour Party continually stuck to the premise that “there is no alternative” (TINA) to austerity measures, and the (soon-to-be-outgoing) Labour Government announced in 2010 that its public spending cuts would be “deeper and tougher” than under Thatcher (Marlière 2014: 106). Similarly, under Ed Miliband’s leadership between 2010 and 2015, Labour continued to accept the TINA doctrine – that there is no alternative to austerity (albeit “austerity-light,” at least in comparison with that of the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government). The Labour Party stuck to the conviction that industrial action should be avoided or discouraged, and that the focus of macroeconomic policies should be providing support for business (Marlière 2014). This program resulted in a more resounding general election defeat in 2015 than had been widely expected.

For those social democratic parties out of office during the crisis, there was greater opportunity to adopt a more explicitly “traditional” social democratic programme and offer it as an alternative to austerity and fiscal orthodoxy. However, in many cases this opportunity was short-lived. In Sweden the social democratic party oscillated between left and right positions before settling on the more “sensible” right option in pursuit of its election to office (Andersson 2014). In France, the PS under Hollande performed another U-turn towards more orthodox policies once it entered office (Bouillaud 2014). In both of these cases, moreover, the ideological movements witnessed were not received well. In Sweden, the social democrats managed to form a minority coalition government in 2014 despite receiving a historically low share of the vote at only 31% (up only 0.3% on its worst post-war performance in the 2010 elections). The coalition government nearly collapsed only months after it was formed in December 2014, and polls have indicated that it has suffered a further decline in support during 2015.5 Likewise, Hollande’s approval ratings slumped throughout much of 2014 and 2015. He only recovered at the end of the year, in a context of perceived national crisis following the November 13th attacks – a situation where national leaders usually see their popularity rise. It was under these exceptional circumstances, that Hollande infamously announced his support for the far-right’s “déchéance de nationalité” (plans to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality), despite strong criticism from the party’s left wing (Vinocur 2016; see also the discussion in Chabal 2016).

Social democratic parties did not, therefore, benefit electorally from the global economic crisis. Indeed, if we compare the pre-crisis period with that which followed, we witness a fall in electoral support for social democratic parties in most member states (Bailey et al., 2014: 7). Social democratic parties that were in office when the crisis hit suffered particularly badly. For instance, the Spanish socialists (PSOE), in office from 2004–2011, oversaw the implementation of what it claimed were “necessary” austerity measures, which they couched in an unclear ideological message. The outcome, in the general elections of 2011, was the party’s worst performance since the end of the Franco regime (Kennedy 2014). Since then, the PSOE’s popularity has declined even further and reached a new low of 22% of the vote in 2015, equivalent to half of what it had been in 2008. More infamous is the case of the Greek social democratic party, PASOK. With the exception of an interim technocratic government in 2012, PASOK was in power as the governing party or as a member of coalition from 2009 to 2015. Following the party’s implementation of a series of austerity packages at the insistence of the so-called “Troika,” the party experienced a near-total collapse. In a process that is paradigmatically referred to as “PASOK-ification,” and is widely feared by social democratic parties across Europe, the percentages of the parties vote plummeted from 43.9% in 2009 to just 4.7% in the January 2015 elections (Sotiropoulos 2014).

In addition to their failure to capitalise on the post-crisis context in the polls, social democratic parties have also failed to steer the European Union towards the realization of their declared ambitions for a Social Europe. Thus, policies adopted by the European Union in response to the crisis have arguably consolidated the inequalities and pro-market agenda witnessed ahead of the crisis. This trend has been most evident in the case of strict constitutional requirements that have institutionalised the pro-cyclical macroeconomic policies associated with tight fiscal discipline. This is in stark contrast to the ambitions of transnational social democratic actors in the initial post-crisis context of 2008–09. For example, right after the emergence of the crisis, the Party of European Socialists declared that “[t]his crisis is the great defeat of neo-liberal capitalism” and advocated a social democratic alternative that would consist of “energetic and coordinated action from the EU and its Member States” (quoted in Bailey 2014: 239). Yet the reality has been somewhat different. In creating the European Stability Mechanism as the main means to support the struggling member states, and in binding the support to abide with the Treaty on Stability, Cooperation and Governance (or the Fiscal Compact as it is more commonly known), the European Union initiated a highly orthodox, pro-cyclical fiscal regime that would punish those member states that sought to respond to low growth through the adoption of deficit-spending or other fiscal strategies for reflating national economies (Closa 2015). Likewise, attempts to implement or agree to more progressive policies at the EU-level were largely unsuccessful. For instance, each of the three most high-profile attempts to implement progressive social policies – reform of the Working Time Directive, the adoption of the “Pregnant Workers’ Directive,” and the “fourth anti-discrimination directive” – foundered in the face of opposition from key veto actors (see Bailey forthcoming (b) for a more detailed discussion).

The Syriza Experiment: Testing the Democratic Deficit

It is within this context that we should understand the Syriza experiment for the left. Syriza represented an attempt by electoral left actors to test the degree to which the European Union could be challenged and directed towards a more progressive agenda. To what extent would the institutions of the European Union be prepared to override the clearly expressed democratic preferences of the electorate of one of its member states? Syriza wagered that the potential for a legitimation crisis that would be prompted by the clear and visible confirmation of the EU’s so-called “democratic deficit” would surely be enough to secure a compromise or concessions from Europe’s political elite. As Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Minster of Finance at the time of the negotiations puts it, “Our five month long negotiation was a contest between the right of creditors to govern a debtor nation and the democratic right of that nation’s citizens to be self-governed” (Varoufakis 2015). The result of the Syriza experiment was damning for those on the left who continued to express the hope that the European Union could be made progressive. The elected Syriza government was forced to capitulate on its electoral mandate, and on the subsequent reinforcement of that mandate in the July referendum. The capitulation imposed on the Greek government represented a direct attempt by the core powers of the European Union – the ECB, the Commission, the government of Germany, and the creditors within the European Union – to exert their authority over, and to deny the possibility for, a democratic alternative to their expressed will. To quote Varoufakis again:

It is not true that our creditors are interested in getting their money back from the Greek state. Or that they want to see Greece reformed. They cared uniquely about one thing: To confirm Dr Schäuble’s dictum that elections cannot be allowed to change anything in Europe. That democracy ends where insolvency begins. That proud nations facing debt issues must be condemned to a debt prison within which it is impossible to produce the wealth necessary to repay their debts and get out of jail. And so it is that Europe is turning from our common home to our shared iron cage…this episode will go down in European history as the moment when official Europe declared war on European democracy. Greece capitulated but it is Europe that was defeated. (Varoufakis 2015)

If we accept, therefore, that the manifesto and election of the Syriza government, and the subsequent July referendum were each part of an experiment to test the degree to which democracy could defeat the commitment of the European Union to economic orthodoxy, then how should we interpret the results of that experiment? And, in particular, what do those results imply for social democratic and socialist governments with regard to their now longstanding support for, and pursuit of, Social Europe?

What Next? Onwards to a Social Europe (again)

The central question facing social democratic (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, radical left) parties following the Syriza debacle, must surely be that of how to approach the European Union. Three options appear to present themselves: a continuation, or relaunch, of the search for Social Europe (again); a rejection of the European Union on the grounds that it is an inherently neoliberal institution beyond reform; or indifference towards the question of European integration, with the recognition that the real struggle lies elsewhere. The social democratic centre-left will almost certainly adopt the first option – the search for Social Europe (again) – despite the fact that (or, more accurately, because) the EU is an un-reformable neoliberal institution. The progressive significance that contemporary centre-left actors have attached to European integration, despite all evidence to the contrary, ensures that there is really little choice left for the centre-left other than to continue to proclaim its support for a progressive Social Europe. As in earlier times, this position affords the centre-left to continue attempting to build a progressive constituency – and thereby establishing one of their “conditions of existence” – in a form which obfuscates the core problem which social democratic parties face in the present. The problem is the following: the global economic context is such that it has become increasingly difficult for centre-left parties to identify feasible and practicable ways in which to ameliorate the inequalities that constitute contemporary capitalism (McKee 2016). As such, any attempt to propose policies that might ameliorate those inequalities are also de facto assaults upon the reproduction of capitalism, necessitating the transcendence and replacement of capitalism if they are really to be implemented. Yet this transcendence would require a degree of militant popular mobilisation which social democratic parties, and especially their party leaders, are loathe to advocate (not least because its occurrence would pose significant challenges to the role and position of those leaders themselves) (Bailey 2009b). Support for the European Union, and especially the pursuit of Social Europe, therefore, continues to enable centre-left parties to adopt a progressive stance even when the implementation of the content of what is being advocated is largely unachievable. The centre-left will make further declarations about the need for institutional and policy reform of the European Union in order to overcome the institutional obstacles that are claimed to obstruct more progressive outcomes from being realised. The institutional obstacles will offer a convenient target for blame (highlighting further need for reform) yet again when they prove too resilient to reform and continue to prevent Social Europe from coming into effect.

The position recently adopted by Jeremy Corbyn on the question of Europe illustrates this point well. Despite his election being widely interpreted as a radical departure from Third Way social democracy, Corbyn’s position on European integration shows remarkable continuity with that of earlier Third Way discourse on Europe. As Isabelle Hertner (2015) points out, “despite being Labour’s most Eurosceptical leader in decades, Corbyn decided to back the ‘in’ campaign for Britain to remain within the European Union.” As she shows, this was a decision presented almost entirely through a discourse that emphasised both the Social Europe elements of the EU and, perhaps more importantly, the need for EU reform in order to create a more fully Social Europe. Thus, Corbyn states, “Labour has campaigned to make sure our place in Europe has led to better protection and rights in the workplace, and we will continue to fight for jobs and security for all the British people” (quoted in Hertner 2015). In setting out his proposals for a reformed EU in more detail in an essay he published in the Financial Times, Corbyn performed each of the standard tropes of earlier (Third Way) social democrats. That is, first, to announce that the EU needs reform: “Labour is clear that we should remain in the EU. But we too want to see reform.” Second, to establish that the EU makes it possible to achieve progressive public policy that would otherwise be unachievable through unilateral action by a single member state: “Europe is the only forum in which we can address key challenges for our country, like climate change, terrorism, tax havens and, most recently, the mass movement of refugees from the violence in Syria seeking sanctuary and hope in Europe.” Third, to make it clear that this agenda can be achieved through cooperation with other social democratic party actors at the EU-level: “We will make the case through Labour MEPs in the European Parliament, and our relationships with sister social democratic parties, trade unions and other social movements across Europe” (emphasis added). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to make it clear that this recipe of actions will result in a progressive outcome that confirms the progressive credentials of the social democratic party in question: “If Mr Cameron fails to deliver a good package or one that reduces the social gains we have previously won in Europe, he needs to understand that Labour will renegotiate to restore our rights and promote a socially progressive Europe.” (Corbyn 2015)

We can compare this statement by Corbyn with some of the classic Third Way texts from the late 1990s – each of which repeat almost exactly the same sequence of social democratic tropes on the European Union. That is, first, to announce that the EU needs reform: “it is precisely because we both need Europe, and Europe needs reform and change, that Britain’s participation in Europe is so essential” (Blair, 2001). Second, to establish that the EU makes it possible to achieve progressive public policy that would otherwise be unachievable through unilateral action by a single member state:

In the modern world it is only through Britain’s committed participation in the European Union that we can regain true sovereignty – in other words, the political ability to tackle problems in the public interest – over many issues which have slipped beyond the nation-state’s individual reach, whether the question be global warming, the prevention of future wars in Europe, or international economic cooperation to provide the conditions of stability necessary to boost economic growth in Europe and restore full employment. (Mandelson and Liddle 1996: 27–28)

Third, to make it clear that this agenda can be achieved through cooperation with other social democratic party actors at the EU-level: “Part of the answer, as many suggest, should be to couple greater power for the European Parliament (EP) to more effective transnational party organization.” (Giddens 1998: 143) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to advance that this recipe of actions will result in a progressive outcome that confirms the progressive credentials of the social democratic party in question: “we will sign the [EU] Social Chapter because it is right for our country and gives people fairness as well” (Blair 1994). The degree of overlap between Corbyn and Blair on the issue of Europe is clearly quite remarkable, not least because they are so often depicted as being at ideological polar opposites (at least within the broad field of social democratic politics). Nevertheless, they both adopt an almost identical position on the need to pursue Social Europe (again).

Sigmar Gabrial walking left past large SPD sign
Sigmar Gabriel, German Minister of the Economic Affairs and Energy, Vice Chancellor, and Chairman of the Social Democratic Party speaks at a party convention on December 10, 2015. (Michael Gottschalk / Photothek via Getty Images)

Responding to the Lack of Social Europe

The relationship between the left and the European Union continues to demand our attention. Opposition to the European Union has come to be associated with nationalism; whilst the embrace of European integration, or at least the promise for internationalism, multinationalism, cosmopolitanism, and/or transnational solidarity that it contains, is considered axiomatic by most progressives, despite the consistently un-progressive nature of actual European policy output. How, then, should leftists approach an apparently un-reformable neoliberal institution such as the European Union, while bearing in mind that opposition to it is likely to be interpreted as yet another sign that nationalist instincts prevail (or have become re-emboldened) and are the result of the economic hard times of the post-2008 global economic context? Opposition to the EU risks fanning the flames of nationalism. As we see with the debates surrounding the forthcoming “Brexit” referendum, arguments for leaving the European Union are difficult to make without simultaneously heralding the merits of the nation-state. Nationalism, surely, is not the route for the left. On the other hand, support for the EU, or advocating the search for Social Europe (again), risks perpetuating the myth that contemporary capitalism can be rendered more fair, if only the institutional obstacles to supranational progressive governance could be overcome. The primary role of this myth is to sustain the belief in the ability of leftist politics to achieve ameliorative goals. However, in a context where the reproduction of global capitalism necessitates the intensification of socio-economic inequality in order to compensate for stagnating profitability and growth, the reformist goals are visibly bankrupt. That would seem to leave indifference as the only viable option. That is, to declare the European Union of little interest because it has little potential to be emancipatory; neither embracing nor rejecting European integration will produce emancipatory outcomes.

It would be better perhaps to be “critically indifferent”: neither to support nor reject European integration, and instead highlight, simultaneously, the attempts by the European Union to quieten popular demands and dissent, and the ongoing and ever-present capacity of the people in Europe to refuse and disrupt domination (for more on which, see Huke et al., 2015). The options available during 2015 in Greece became centred on a choice between staying in Europe and seeking the best possible negotiated outcome (Syriza), and leaving either the Euro or the European Union in pursuit of a national route to socialism (Lapavitsas, Popular Unity, and the KKE). The Syriza route risks a mystification of the (absent) possibilities of Social Europe (as we saw) while the Euro-exit strategy risks prompting a rise of nationalism. Instead, the more progressive option might be to note the role of European integration in limiting the options for the left, and at the same time, to concentrate instead on the construction of alternative networks of resistance in order to challenge neoliberal capitalism during its post-2008 stagnant phase. The multiple and innovative forms of grassroots associations and new forms of mutual aid that sprung up in the Greek context of economic and political crisis, illustrate most clearly new avenues for progressive action that continue to disrupt the attempt to impose ever-fiercer forms of capitalist domination (on which see, Simiti 2015; see also Omikron project, 2014).


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Ryner, M., 2014, “Why the financial crisis has not generated a social democratic alternative in Europe?,” in D. J. Bailey, J. M. De Waele, F. Escalona and M. Vieira (eds.). European social democracy during the global economic crisis: renovation or resignation? (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp. 60–76.
Scharpf, F., 2010, “The asymmetry of European integration, or why the EU cannot be a ‘social market economy,’” Socio-Economic Review 8 (2): 211–50.
Simit, M., 2015, “’Social Need’ or ‘Choice’? Greek Civil Society during the Economic Crisis,” GreeSE Paper No.95 Hellenic Observatory Papers on Greece and Southeast Europe, November 2015. Available: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/64665/1/__lse.ac.uk_storage_LIBRARY_Secondary_

Sotiropoulos, D.A., 2014, “Triumph and collapse: PASOK in the wake of the crisis in Greece (2009–13)” in D. J. Bailey, J. M. De Waele, F. Escalona and M. Vieira (eds.) European social democracy during the global economic crisis: renovation or resignation? (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp. 193–212.
Varoufakis, Y., 2015, “Our Athens Spring,” Speech delivered on 23 August 2015, Saône-et-Loire. Available here: http://links.org.au/node/4568.
Vinocur, N., 2016, “François Hollande, the decider,” Politico 1 January 2016. Available: http://www.politico.eu/article/francois-hollande-the-decider/

Recommended citation: Bailey, David. “The End of the European Left? Social Democracy, Hope, Disillusion, and Europe.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

The Left in Power? Notes on Syriza’s Rise, Fall, and (Possible) Second Rise

The left in power?1 Four enticing words. The most important thing here, however, is the question mark at the end. For what does the left mean today as ideology and vision, as organization and party, as movement and government? No single or simple answer exists. We have no recipe or textbook to pick from the shelf, adjust to the Greek situation, and apply. Recent debates about Greece in the international left have been characterized by a somewhat infantile leftism, which has turned the “Grexit”–a return to the drachma and even an exit from the EU altogether – into the litmus test of radicalism. A “left-meter” has been created: anyone who does not accept the Grexit as the holy grail of left ideology is denounced as a “traitor,” “sell out,” etc. This kind of attack used to be standard fare of old Marxists and communists in the internecine struggles of the twentieth century. But the repeated theoretical failures and political defeats of the last fifty years should have taught the left that – instead of quoting Marx or repeating soothing mantras – it is more important to work out what Marx would have said today in the difficult situation of contemporary Greece and Europe.

“Contradiction” is the Name of the Left in Power

The theoretical and political uncertainties become harder when the left gets into power. Rather, when the left is elected into government. Power and government are not synonymous. The Greek power structure has hardly taken notice of the Syriza government. The first government (January – August 2015) gave at times the impression of a rabbit frozen by the powerful beams of the incoming juggernaut. The juggernaut of the Troika – the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and (now quadruple) the European creditors – is a powerful holy alliance. In return for loans given to Greece and other indebted countries, it has imposed neoliberal preconditions of social and economic reform. As a result, Greece finds itself in the situation of a quasi-protectorate, a country with limited sovereignty.

Ministers of the “first time left” government report that they had to act as a “government in exile.” They were held hostage to senior civil servants opposed to its (existing or feared) policies and to junior officials accustomed to minimal effort and unconcerned about efficient and effective governance. Ministers were (and still are) thwarted by public officials who believed that the Syriza government would be a short “left interval” in the long dominance by the right wing and its social-democratic partners. They were denied files and data necessary for the development of policy and they had policies that were frustrated by officials unwilling to implement them. As a result, and partly through incomplete preparation, the government concentrated too much on the negotiations with the lenders and too little on improving the deprivations and degradations of everyday life.

But is there a “left” way of doing government? It is a difficult question not only because we don’t have an answer, but also because we don’t even have a fully worked out question. There is no precedent in Western Europe. The government must experiment, take risks, use the imagination of party and movement, particularly that of young women and men who have consistently supported it. We have to learn to swim by jumping in the water.

The left in power in the current hostile international, European and domestic environment is a project marked by a series of paradoxes and contradictions. Its central expression is this: when a radical left party takes charge of the state, it encounters a hostile institution organized to frustrate its plans. Marxist political and legal theory has considered state and law antagonistic, in both form and content, to the left. This is the basis of the claim that the law will “wither away” in communism. As a result, the relationship between institutions and the left in democratic societies has not been sufficiently explored. The closest the left has come to developing a strategy for this unprecedented condition was Nikos Poulantzas’ idea of being both inside and outside the state, taking it over as well as acting against it. “Contradiction is the name of the left in government.”

This general contradiction takes a more specific form in the Greek situation. For the right wing opposition and establishment media, it is a paradox and a scandal that Syriza Ministers sotto voce and the party openly and proudly proclaim their opposition to the policies they have to implement following the July 12 agreement and the neoliberal memorandum imposed on them. The party has called on people repeatedly to participate in strikes against continuing austerity and has asked its members to march alongside protesters against government policies. Perplexed opposition politicians find in this approach the final proof of Syriza’s crazy, almost schizophrenic behavior. For establishment politicians, the role of the governing party is to support its Ministers and to act as a transmission belt popularizing and legitimizing policies and distributing small-scale patronage. Yet a left party must always keep a distance from its government, criticizing its policies when they depart from their shared ideological commitments. In the current Greek situation, when the government is held hostage to hostile domestic and foreign powers, critical support and even opposition is pragmatically unavoidable and ideologically necessary.

Governing in such a situation involves resilience and compromise; it involves ideological commitment accompanied by political reversals. Party and government have to persevere in their task, losing battles but preparing for victory in the war. A commonsense view believes that contradictions prepare Syriza’s inevitable downfall. However, contradiction is not simply a debilitating condition. Being in contradiction, negotiating a way out of an aporia, offers a dialectical opportunity. A left government under foreign tutelage which is responsible for a society imbued with neoliberal ideology, a failing economy, and an inefficient and corrupt state has to maneuver its way out of contradiction by distinguishing between different temporalities and thematic priorities.

The political version of the paradox is somewhat different. Syriza finds itself in the strange position of a political victory pulled out of an ideological defeat. The ultra-leftist opposition claims that Syriza has betrayed its own values, but the answer is brutally simple. People did not vote for Syriza when it was just a radical left opposition party. Before 2012, when its left ideology, rhetoric and personnel were still intact, Syriza received at most 5% in elections. In January 2015 people voted massively for Syriza (it received 37%); in the July 2015 referendum, the “No” vote received 62%, with Syriza as the only party supporting it; and in the September 2015 election Syriza again received a massive portion (36% of the vote). Three successive electoral victories in a short 9-month period is an internationally unprecedented success and cannot be attributed solely to Syriza’s leftist credentials. Electoral victory did not emerge out of, but against the ideological hegemony of the established right wing and social-democratic parties, which ruled the country for forty years. Understanding the causes and limitations of this victory and turning votes into winning hearts and souls will be the deciding factor for Syriza’s future.

A Brief Account of Syriza’s Rise

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did we get here? Just before the 2012 elections, which marked the beginning of the Syriza ascent, Forbes magazine published an article by Bill Frezza entitled “Give the Greeks what they Deserve: Communism.”2 The article argued that the world needs a new communism in action and that there is no better candidate than Greece. “Kick them out of the EU, cut the flow of free euros and then sit back comfortably and enjoy the destruction of the left for a generation.” It was the first published example of what became known as the “short left interval.” Let them get into power, make sure they fail and, by that token, kill off the left in Europe.

Has this succeeded? The answer is both yes and no. A postmodern coup d’état was put into operation immediately after the election of Syriza on 25 January 2015.3 The government was elected with a clear mandate to put an end to austerity. Between 2009, when the first bailout loan and its accompanying memorandum were put in place, austerity policies were carried out on two fronts: fiscal austerity and internal devaluation. Fiscal austerity was pursued through the reduction of public spending, the privatisation of key state assets, and the increase of tax revenues. Large numbers of civil servants were sacked, social services were slashed with the health service, in particular, unable to meet basic needs. The humanitarian crisis that followed is well documented. The creditors’ logic aimed at generating primary budget surpluses, which would not be used to restart the stalled economy but to repay the escalating debt. The previous governments had accepted the obligation to create annual surpluses of up to 5% of GDP in the next seven years, something that no government since Ceaușescu’s Romania has either attempted or achieved.

The internal devaluation was carried out through the repeated reduction of private sector wages and the abolition of the bulk of labour law protections, such as collective bargaining. At the same time, the repeated tax increases, including the regressive tax on real estate, meant that the bleeding of the economy reached unprecedented levels. The pauperisation of the working people, the IMF argument goes, would improve competitiveness and help economic growth. But the result was abject economic failure. The economy shrank by 26%, unemployment jumped to 27%, youth unemployment went up to 60%, and more than 3 million people were on or below the poverty line. The IMF admitted a couple of years ago that it had under-calculated the adverse effects of austerity on the economy – the so-called fiscal multiplier – by a factor of three.

It is against this background that in January 2015 the Greeks elected Syriza – a party committed to reversing these policies. A period of negotiations with European institutions and creditors followed. But they were not proper negotiations. The huge gap in power between the two parties’ resources and ideology made the talks brutally asymmetrical. I have called these “negotiations” a European coup, an attempt at “regime change” using banks and not tanks. The economic stakes for the lenders were and still are relatively small: the Greek economy is only 2% of European GDP, and so this does not justify the risk of a breakdown in relations, particularly after the huge migration flows of 2015 when Greece received more some 850,000 refugees and immigrants. The precautionary principle of risk theory, inscribed in the European DNA, demands that the unpredictable effects of a Grexit on the European and world economy should be avoided. If the collapse of Lehman Brothers created such a huge crisis, a Grexit was considered more dangerous.

The perceived threat of a Syriza success and of a haircut of Greek debt, repeatedly declared unsustainable by the IMF, is political, not economic. The European elites fear a southern Europe contagion of the anti-austerity stance taken by the Greek people and government. The Scottish anti-austerity vote, the results of the Portuguese and Spanish elections, the Sinn Fein opinion poll results, and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour party indicate that the people have started stirring. The Syriza government led the attack on the “there is no alternative” neoliberal mantra. An arc of virtue followed (moving alongside the Mediterranean and further north on the European periphery), an arc that threatens the hegemonic position. “There is another way”: this is what Syriza and the left argue. Markets are not above people, democracy should be extended and deepened, public assets should not be privatized, and we must stop the massive transfer of capital from the poor to the rich.

Even a limited success story, from this point of view, would have indicated that people can fight back against the odds. The European Union and the IMF feared that the Syriza political contagion would spread across Europe. Immediately after the historic January 2015 victory, the first one for the radical left in Europe, a destabilisation plan was put into effect. The aim was clear: either overthrow the government, if it did not accept the onerous conditions imposed on Greece; or humiliate the government so much as to make it impossible to keep the party and government together. Many were the signs of this attempted “regime change.” All the black arts of misinformation and pressure were put into operation. Greeks were encouraged to remove their savings so as to create a bank run. Fiscal strangulation was followed by the drip-drip of reduced bank liquidity, which reminded people of Chinese water torture. Eventually all financial loans and help were switched off and capital controls had to be imposed after the referendum was called in July.

A man withdraws money from an ATM in downtown Athens on July 4, 2015. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
A man withdraws money from an ATM in downtown Athens on July 4, 2015. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Every time the Greek government presented a political proposal to solve the long-term problem of debt sustainability, it was asked to go to the European technocrats and have it evaluated. Every time Greek authorities returned with detailed numbers, the creditors would challenge the political framework behind it. The IMF insisted on hardening internal devaluation but asked for a debt reduction to make it viable. The Europeans were more sensitive to Syriza’s democratic mandate but unwilling to negotiate the easing of debt. Caught between the Scylla of a permanently increasing debt (where new loans are used to pay the earlier debt) and the Charybdis of escalating austerity, Syriza ran out of negotiating room.

The endgame moves were characteristic of the impasse. On Thursday June 18, while Premier Alexis Tsipras was in Russia, Reuters reported a leak from a member of the ECB Board according to which the high street banks might not open the following Monday. It was a clear sign, urging people to withdraw their savings on Friday – a warning and self-fulfilling prophecy that could amount to a criminal offence. I was having dinner with senior Syriza members in Athens when the news broke. I was surprised and delighted by their calm, cucumber-cool response. They decided not to give much emphasis to the leak and to play down the continuing attacks. There was no bank run on Friday morning.

On June 25, Greece submitted a new set of fully budgeted proposals. They were a major retreat from the Syriza manifesto and went a long way towards the creditors’ position. The government accepted fiscal demands by cutting public spending and increasing taxes, amounting to a € 7.9 billion total loss to the economy. On the other hand, the new burden was distributed in a more just way. 70% of the new taxes were placed on the shoulders of the wealthier part of society by increasing the corporate tax rate from 26% to 29% and imposing a one-off tax on corporations with profits of over half a million. For the first time, these proposals were well received by the lenders, who stated that they were a valid basis for agreement. But immediately afterwards, four days before the end of the current financial programme, the lenders increased the amount, further bled the economy of over € 11 billion, and reversed priorities by imposing the bulk of the new demands on the poorer part of society.

This deal was presented as a final “take it or leave it” proposal. Angela Merkel called it “generous,” while Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, said that “the game is over.” It became clear that the “negotiations” would conclude only if the government accepted the blackmail and abandoned its ideology as well as its promises to the Greek people. Against this background, Tsipras called the referendum on July 5 asking the people to reject the creditors’ blackmail.

The July 5 referendum was an unprecedented case of democracy in action. It combined institutional and popular, direct forms of democracy. The Syriza party machinery mobilized late and reluctantly in that amazing week. The 62% victory was won by ordinary people, many of whom adopted the “No” vote in a quiet but determined way. European politicians, including the President of the European Parliament and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, warned the Greeks of the dire consequences of a “No” vote. The Greek media were awash with predictions of doom and gloom if people rejected the offer. Polling organizations, negligently and perhaps fraudulently, predicted a “Yes” vote, and only on the Friday before the referendum did they switch to predicting a small victory for the “No” vote. The people, weary of the hostile media, became “Shy No Voters,” not answering pollsters or disclosing their voting intentions. People would not openly engage with me when I campaigned for the “No” in Athens, only to wink secretly a minute later, after taking precautions not to be seen. It was a case of citizens against power, one of the few occasions when a whole people hoodwinked first and then cocked a snook on its “superiors.”

After the referendum, Prime Minister Tsipras went back to Brussels hoping that the popular mandate would allow him to negotiate a better deal in return for a third bailout loan. He was faced with blackmail of unprecedented proportions. He was offered a third €84 billion loan accompanied by a series of harsh and punitive prerequisites against the Syriza ideology and manifesto; or, alternatively, he was offered an exit from the Eurozone. Capitulation or Grexit were the two equally bad prospects on offer. It was a tragic dilemma, well known in classical Greek tragedy. Syriza could neither accept nor reject the blackmail, without jeopardizing either its political identity and ideology or the survival of country and government. It was a typical aporia, an inability to pass through the gaping mouth of Scylla and the aggressive claws of Charybdis. The choice was between failing the trust of the people who placed their faith in Syriza or jeopardizing their survival and livelihood. Tsipras negotiated with the European leaders for seventeen hours and eventually accepted a deal that, while much better than what was offered the previous week, was a clear continuation of the neoliberal agenda.

The choice was not between sticking to principles and a government’s duty to act responsibly. It was what every government does on a daily basis, namely a pragmatic and utilitarian calculation of likely consequences. Grexit, solidly rejected by the Greeks in repeated opinion polls, would have been catastrophic. Even its staunchest supporters agreed that its immediate impact would have further deteriorated the economic situation of a country that had already suffered a 25% fall in GDP, 27 % unemployment, 65% youth unemployment, and a close to 50% fall in family income. Unlike Argentina, Greece could not foster its recovery by exporting commodities. Its negative trade balance is dominated by the import of oil, food and pharmaceuticals, the retail price of which would have skyrocketed in the wake of the devaluation of the post-euro national currency. As Costas Lapavitsas, a dogmatic proponent of the Grexit has conceded, it is not possible to calculate in advance how long the post-Grexit recession would last. It could go up to eighteen months and would need to be mitigated by the rationing of basic commodities. Rationing heating oil, milk, meat and basic medicines, something that had last happened during the Nazi occupation, would have been the left government’s shortest suicide note. The middle class’s pots and pans protests against President Allende in Chile or the repeated attempts to oust President Chavez were chilling reminders of the limited powers of a government that has acted against entrenched class interests.

But it was even worse than that. In early May, Greek negotiators became aware that the German authorities were preparing a plan to exclude Greece from the Eurozone. German Finance Minister Schäuble’s plan, revealed during the July negotiations, had reached full operational levels. Greece would be expelled from the Eurozone, for an initial five-year period, while some financial assistance would be offered to deal with the expected humanitarian catastrophe. The government’s negotiating strategy was in tatters. Not only did the Germans not fear the adverse effects of Grexit, it was their preferred solution. Here we should briefly examine the problematic Syriza negotiating strategy developed by Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and his team.

Varoufakis developed two lines of negotiation. The first was based on the belief that if Greece were to drag out the negotiations, first implicitly and later explicitly threatening Grexit, the Europeans would eventually relent out of worry about the implications of a possible breakup of the Eurozone for the European and world economy. It was a reasonable assumption sustained by many (mainly American) economists and think-tanks predicting an economic Armageddon if Greece left the euro. The catastrophe scenario was known to the EU and the ECB, which, unlike the Greek government, started taking defensive measures in case a Grexit happened by design or default. The failure of the Varoufakis strategy became apparent in May when Athens stayed the payment of a maturing IMF bond. The Greek press and government expected a major crash of international stock markets and a worsening of the credit rating of vulnerable countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy. However, the quantitative easing introduced by Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB, as part of a series of fire-prevention measures, meant that the fears of the financial markets were contained.

This however did not change the Greek strategy. Varoufakis had played for time following the standard line of resistance to superior forces preached by Clausewitz and practiced by guerilla movements. But after the banks raised their defense lines, time started to work against Greece. The existing agreement between the Greek state and its creditors was going to run out at the end of June, allowing the ECB to stop the financial drip that was keeping banks afloat. Varoufakis continued the chicken game, not appreciating that the goalposts had been moved. When it became clear that Wolfgang Schäuble had developed a strategy of excluding Greece from the Eurozone, Varoufakis’ main chip in the poker game with the Europeans was stolen by the opposition, and it turned into a powerful weapon against Greece.

This serious miscalculation was made possible by the negotiators’ inexperience and was aided by a second mistake. The left always aims to carry out a concrete analysis of the concrete situation, taking full notice of the balance of forces. Cosmopolitans, on the other hand, believe that good arguments, reasoned positions, and the enlightenment values of democracy and solidarity can carry the day against materially superior opponents and the explicit political and ideological interests of neoliberal orthodoxy. We can call this the Habermasian illusion, the belief that an ideal speech-like situation exists in international politics and will allow reason and goodwill to prevail. The stakes were (and still are) huge for Greece but not insignificant for the dominant powers. Syriza’s victory had opened the possibility of anti-austerity sentiment taking hold in other southern states. The dream of Spain, Portugal or Italy going left was the stuff of German and Dutch nightmares. The Greeks had to be stopped for political rather than economic reasons, for the left contagion had to be contained in the eastern Mediterranean. The capitulation of Cyprus under a nominally communist government was seen as the model for disciplining Greece, too.

But this was lost to the Varoufakis team. Like all negotiating positions relying exclusively on good arguments, values and principles, this strategy was doomed to fail. The overwhelming anti-left forces, the miscalculation of the Europeans’ fear of Syriza’s success, and liberal naiveté combined with the lack of alternative strategies, led to defeat. But the referendum changed the political game, if not the negotiations.

The referendum call and the overwhelming “No” victory brought Syriza, the government and Prime Minister Tsipras, who called it against the odds, closer to the people than at any point in recent Greek history. After the referendum and despite the defeat when the third neoliberal memorandum was imposed on the government, leading to a split in the party, Syriza’s electoral victory was assured. The opposition and pollsters misread the link that such a strong vote across party, ideological and class lines creates between a leader and the people. The blackmail and the resulting defeat in the July negotiations was undoubtedly inflicted in order to make the Greeks consider Syriza traitors and turncoats at worse or hypocrites at best. It was part of the “Get Tsipras” left interval strategy. This was finally put to rest in the September elections when Syriza received almost the same percentage in the popular vote as in the triumphant January elections.

Defeat into Victory

There is no doubt that the third memorandum, which Syriza MPs helped vote into law, involves a set of recessionary and socially unjust measures. While the July agreement is better than what was presented to Tsipras in June (since it reduced the burden on the economy by € 20 billion), there is no doubt that the Syriza government lost. Yet, the claim that the left interval was finished, that Syriza “betrayed,” “sold out” or was co-opted into the neoliberal orthodoxy is absurd. The question remains, however: after the September elections, is the Syriza government still on the radical left? I experience a huge existential difficulty when voting for measures that I campaigned against in print and action. But only time will tell whether the blackmail turned Syriza to the right, or just forced the party into a temporary retreat. Let me repeat: we don’t have a textbook definition of what “radical left” means in the 21st century and, likewise, what “left governmentality” is all about.

Syriza needs to experiment by using popular imagination and taking risks in order to develop a programme predicated on authentic left values. But this is not enough. The government must try to reform a dysfunctional, ineffective, ideologically hostile and often corrupt state sector. At the same time, it must re-energize the social movements that brought it to power and facilitate a dormant social dynamic. People have repeatedly voted for Syriza, but electoral domination does not entail ideological hegemony. On the contrary, neoliberalism has undermined communities and atomized society. Planning for a socialist future is a conundrum that could tax the brightest minds and the fieriest of hearts. And we have to deal with it here and now.

Greeks rally in front of the Hellenic Parliament.
Greeks rally in front of the Hellenic Parliament.

Syriza needs to turn defeat into victory, as Athena Athanasiou has noted.4 We have to assume defeat in the battle but prepare for the long war. Slavoj Žižek has argued that “the true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice, it functions as a fetish which prevents us thinking to the end the deadlock of our predicament.”5 This is a necessary first step. However, the contradiction between Syriza’s ideology and the neoliberal memorandum does not necessarily lead to stasis and surrender. The measures implementing the agreement are the material recognition of defeat. But contradiction is the engine room of political dialectics.

Let me start with the party. It must continue its principled and reasoned opposition to neoliberalism, take a friendly but critical distance from the government and keep pushing it to adopt at the earliest opportunity the Keynesian measures necessary for re-starting the economy. As far as the government is concerned, it must expedite negotiations with creditors about the reduction of the unsustainable debt burden. The denunciation of the imposed policies by Ministers manifests the contradictory and agonistic nature of left governmentality in a capitalist society, as Stathis Gourgouris has rightly noted.6 Nothing is more radical and scandalous than a government that proclaims its disagreement with the policies it has to implement, calls them the result of blackmail and develops a parallel programme to mitigate their consequences. Left governmentality means that critical distance, internal dissent and even active resistance form part of the government’s negotiating strategy and the necessary correction to the seesaw between rupture and assimilation. Let me repeat: contradiction is the name of a left government that swims in a sea of neoliberal capitalism.

Political Temporalities

A common press comment is that political time has been “dense” because of the continuously unfolding dramatic events. But time has also been elongated. In late January 2016, when the first anniversary of the 2015 election victory was celebrated, memories had already started fading. Many felt that 2015 was a year that lasted for ten. If we follow the logic of contracted or extended temporalities, 2015 was the longest, most fascinating, and toughest year of our lives. Time fast or slow, long or dense, constitutes the dimension in which the left wager will be won or lost.

Political and personal time is not united or uniform. It is multidimensional and fragmented. Syriza radicals, Members of Parliament and of the government live simultaneously in three different temporalities, three concentric circles, which are both overlapping and conflicting. The inner and shortest circle is the time of the present, the time of a left government that, as a result of the July agreement, has to legislate and apply the recessional and socially unjust measures it ideologically rejects. It is a “dense” and difficult time for those asked to implement what they fought against. It covers the period from the September 2015 elections to April 2016 when the left is held hostage to the creditors and the country is a quasi-protectorate of the Europeans and the IMF.

It is a time of political panic and personal hysteria. The media are full of conspiracies to unseat the government, full of intrigue and apostasy, full of impending doom and catastrophe. A fake state of emergency is constructed with Ministers and other leftists being targeted for nepotism, tax evasion and all kinds of misdemeanour and sin. The bombardment is relentless. Instant gratification, the demand of children to immediate satisfaction, has become instant catastrophe, a political infantilism that functions through the multiplication of false rumours and unfounded attacks aimed at overthrowing the government. Right wing politicians – assisted by some extra-parliamentary leftists – project their own failure on their opponents, unconcerned about the damage they inflict on politics and the international position of the country. When the latest accusation is proved a lie, then a retraction in small print covers the legal back of the defamers and the target moves to the next victim.

The strategy is clear. Government, party and movement are at their weakest in early 2016. The legislation of the necessary reform of the pension system, and the taxation of farmers who have not paid taxes in the past, have created a febrile atmosphere. The opposition hopes that the parliamentary majority of three can be undone. Syriza MPs, on the other hand, experience grave existential issues and problems of conscience. If the resilience of Syriza MPs holds and the government passes successfully through the Easter break, its survival is secure. Six months or ten years in government is the stake for Syriza.

The existential dilemma cannot go away. But it can be soothed through the activation of two other temporalities that exist as traces of futurity in the present time. The second time is slower and longer. It is the time of the “parallel” program put together by the government to mitigate the effects of the memorandum. It is the period of the development of policies with a clear left direction. Some have been introduced already while others are still being developed. They include giving citizenship to immigrants, introducing gay and lesbian partnerships, ending the persecution of conscientious objectors and draft dodgers, introducing reciprocal evaluation of civil servants, and legislating a host of economic policies that support the unemployed and poorer parts of the population. Left governmentality involves planning carefully and preparing state reforms, but also improvising and adjusting, becoming at once brutally pragmatic and uncompromisingly principled. Policies should be developed in close contact with the party and the social movements and be backed by scientific research. Because Syriza is a political government it must garner as much technocratic support as possible.

This is a medium-term plan of three to five years. It is a dialectical synthesis purported to defend and protect the weak through the gradual reduction of inequalities and the expansion and deepening of democracy. In its first phase, the programme continues and extends policies introduced earlier to tackle the humanitarian crisis. To be sure, the challenge of unexpected events always lurks, the contingency and unpredictability of what may happen.

Finally, the time of the radical left vision is the longest. It began in January 2015 and extends into the current horizon. Its weak traces, manifest in the now, operate in and against the imposed policies. It is the time of the ideal, of a socialist vision that has begun but has no visible or predictable ending. It is the longest and slowest time of a programme that must constantly mobilize popular approval and legitimacy.

The memorandum is the symbolic order of Syriza. It distributes government, MPs and party into their current positions of unwilling small-scale agents of European capital. The social transformation programme, on the other hand, is the imaginary order. It allows us to keep going by believing and acting now in the name of a “not yet” or a “to come,” which re-defines our current predicament as the necessary precursor of a socialist future. Syriza needs resilience and endurance as the three temporalities progress with different velocities and the three programmes come into conflict. Syriza will reach the second temporality of left governance and the third of left vision only by continuously and simultaneously implementing and undermining the agreement policies. Only when this third temporality starts unfolding, freed from the neoliberal lambast, will the full programme of the left of the 21st century emerge. It is a case of escaping into the future, acting now from the perspective of a future perfect, of what will have been. In this sense, the future becomes an active factor of our present.

Democratic Socialism in the 21st century

Is Syriza ready? Can it succeed? There are acts you prepare for and others that hit you on the head, like a miracle or an earthquake. You are never ready to fall in love or to start a revolution. The decision, the act, hits you on the head: the French call it coup de foudre; in English you fall in love. The act is like madness, it calls you to arms, you cannot resist, it takes over. Syriza has been adopted by the people as the subject of radical change and it can only accept the challenge. It is a historic wager; its outcome is not a given.

For Marx, communism appears historically as a political movement or as an idea; let us call it the communist horizon that transcends and politicizes its own historical expressions, abandoning the teleological trajectory. This idea interpellates subjects, over-determines social relations, and promises a radical humanism that brings people together as well as people and nature. Syriza’s long-term social transformation aims to achieve the democratic socialism of the 21st century. Party and government policies, in the present hard times, in the time of left governmentality, and in the ever-present time of the left vision are a continuous journey sailing towards the horizon of equality and democracy. We can call the idea isodemocracy, paraphrasing and developing Etienne Balibar’s equaliberty.

As a horizon, isodemocracy is a dividing line, an arc that moves back and away as we approach it. This is not the case because isodemocracy is a future utopia, a non-realizable ideal. A horizon remains open and unreachable but is integrated as a guiding lighthouse beam into our everyday practice. It is a kind of regulative idea. Every application or instantiation opens up to further extension and deepening, changing both strategic task and political subject. Isodemocracy is therefore not a telos, a terminal station, or the purpose and end of historical teleology or entelechy. We will not cry out at some point, “here we are, we’ve reached the horizon, we have succeeded.” On the contrary, the horizon exists here and now, embodied in every relationship and in every struggle, in every victory but also in our defeats. We failed, we will try again, we will fail better next time. Because we failed better we are now on the threshold of success.

If horizon is the form, its content is double: equality and democracy. First, there is the axiom of equality and the struggle for the reduction of inequality. While freedom is open to all kinds of incompatible interpretations (such as freedom of choice, to turn yourself into a small capitalist business) the foundation of the equality claim is simple. Everyone counts for one and no one more than for one. A left government concretizes this axiom and makes it operational. Deepening equality leads also to freedom as existential autonomy. There is no freedom without equality and no equality without freedom.

Second, there is democracy. Neoliberalism subjects politics to economics, government to governance, democratic debate and agonism to scientific truths. Market preferences are imposed on people and governments turn into collection agencies for the markets and the banks. Democracy becomes impoverished and representative institutions become anemic servants of greedy capitalism. In this context, isodemocracy means the re-politicization of politics and the democratization of society. The left proposes the introduction of referenda, the possibility of the recall of MPs and other elected positions, and gender and race quotas. But when we succeed with these institutional reforms, we will discover that formal democratization is not enough. It must move from formal method to a form of life; in other words, it must pass from central politics to economic, social, cultural and personal life. Democracy, too, is a horizon that keeps changing as we approach it. The general principle becomes concretized and transformed, the horizon takes on the colors and tints of the rainbow, a deeper hue and a wider spectrum. We move from strengthening a principle that has been hollowed out to the recognition that the principle itself has limited reach. It needs to be universalized and deepened in order to succeed. Democracy thus extends from the central political stage and a method of vote aggregation into everyday life. In this process of extension and deepening, institutional democracy is supplemented by direct and non-representative forms. Services and powers are gradually subtracted from state power and transferred to the deliberations and decision making of citizens. This would be the contemporary meaning of the withering away of the state.

The radical left party can meet this historic mission if its form is flexible, its borders porous, its internal life fully transparent. A party becomes a collective intellectual when it abandons the security of routine activity and becomes a lab for the experimentation of structures, ideals and methods. Values and tasks succeed if accompanied by pragmatism as to the means. The party needs unwavering loyalty to equality; democracy and flexible pragmatism are its tools. Take social policies. A task is set: say, ending the humanitarian crisis. If it is achieved, this first success leads immediately to the next step. The equality axiom gives shape to new policies that gradually close the gap and introduce those who escape the poverty trap into the realm of left ideas. Every demand, every success, becomes a step in a long march and a precondition for the next, more radical task. The horizon moves away and again gives the direction for the following chapter, for a deeper radicalization. In this struggle, both the task and the subject keep changing, transforming itself along the way. Stasis and immobility, on the other hand, lead inexorably to reintegration within the old regime. And the same goes for the rule of law. The introduction of a modern rule of law state is a radical demand and a prerequisite for democratic socialism. The demand that the legal system delivers on its promises, that existing rights and entitlements are enforced, is a minimal requirement. But immediately afterwards, we will discover that to perform basic promises, the law must move from proceduralism and individualized rights to substantive equality. This way, equality and democracy become deeper and richer and isodemocracy operates as the dialectical method of reality.

The future of Europe is currently being played out in Greece. It is either the catastrophe of neoliberalism, austerity and the post-democratic condition, or the first major victory of resistance. It will show that resistance and struggle can win, that victory is not a utopian dream. This struggle involves both the ballot box and the street. There can be no left government without social mobilization, and there can be no lasting victories for the solidarity campaigns and the social movements without a change of government.

Socialism, radical change, is nothing more than insistence and perseverance with regard to our initial decision to commit ourselves to the axiom of equality and democracy. From the perspective of the future, our original commitment will appear well founded and foundational, although in reality it is as much necessary as it is contingent. This is how a great love affair and a revolution happen. After the fact, they are considered necessary, predetermined, and indispensable. But if you get to the “rendez vous” a few minutes late, or if you delegate the change to others, to politicians, experts or insiders, then what was predestined has become a lost chance, a love affair you will never experience. It is our political and moral duty to meet the object of our desire.

Will Syriza help change the dominant paradigm in Greece and Europe? Its victory has just put a crack into the dominant model. A paradigm shift can happen if people in London, Paris, Madrid and Rome realise that the dominant model has failed and must be replaced, root and branch, by a new model. Europe will have to choose between the disasters of austerity and the hope of new community. The signs are optimistic.

Recommended citation: Douzinas Costas. “The Left in Power? Notes on Syriza’s Rise, Fall, and (Possible) Second Rise.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Corbynism and Its Futures

On September 12th 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. It is difficult to convey to outsiders just how unexpected this occurrence was. A member of parliament representing a socially mixed North London constituency, Corbyn had been a stalwart of the most radical current in the party for over 30 years, a member of a more-or-less openly Marxist tendency which today has only a handful of representatives within the parliamentary party, and was widely assumed to have a negligible political base in the country at large.

Corbyn had secured sufficient nominations from members of the parliamentary party to enter the race only minutes before the deadline had closed on June 15th. In the days that followed, bookmakers were offering odds of around 100/1 against him actually winning the contest. Neither he nor his closest advisors believed his chances to be any better than that. It has become a truism of mainstream political commentary in the UK in recent months to observe that this was the single most unexpected political event to have occurred since Labour won the 1945 general election in the wake of World War II.

Parliament for Dummies

For the benefit of readers not familiar with UK politics, it will be worth explaining some details of the British political organization before going any further. The UK is governed according to a classical parliamentary model, such that executive authority rests with the Prime Minister, who is almost invariably the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons (the elected legislature). Technically, the national legislature, parliament, is made up of two chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. However, the latter comprises a mixture of government appointees and hereditary aristocrats, wields no power except to delay legislation, and is regarded even on the right as lacking authority or legitimacy. As such “parliament” is often treated as synonymous with the House of Commons; elected members of the House of Commons are referred to as “members of parliament” (or more commonly, MPs), and for all non-ceremonial purposes, the UK effectively has a unicameral system of representation. Each MP represents a single, geographically-defined constituency with a population of around 100,000.

Unlike almost every other parliamentary system in the world, and unlike even the systems for election to all of the more recently created legislative bodies in the UK (such as the Scottish parliament), there are no mechanisms to overcome the inevitable discrepancies which arise between the share of the popular vote won by each party nationally and their actual representation in the House of Commons. So a party in theory can achieve close to 20% of the national vote without achieving any parliamentary representation, if that vote is nowhere concentrated in particular constituencies. This produces a situation not entirely unlike the American party system, and less like that in most European countries. The two main political parties are of necessity large and at times quite incoherent aggregations of different political traditions and interests; in any normal parliamentary system they would be represented by distinct political organisations. It also produces a situation in which elections are almost entirely decided by the votes of a few hundred thousand swing voters in marginal constituencies (of which there are only 50–100, out of a total of 650), and in which any party that can secure over 40% of the vote is likely to enjoy a full parliamentary majority, untroubled by the messy politics of coalition and compromise.

It is easy enough to see why this absurdly undemocratic system has proven so resistant to reform, despite repeated calls for the introduction of proportional representation over the decades. Every Prime Minister who has ever had the opportunity to reform it, almost by definition, has found themselves in a position of exercising supreme executive and legislative authority, untroubled by the checks and balances of the US system or the coalition politics of a proportional parliament, on the basis of (at most) 43% of the popular vote. Who would give up such easy power? To date – nobody; the one manifesto promise which Tony Blair transparently broke as Prime Minister was to hold a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons.

Within the Labour Party itself, the group of Labour Members of the Parliament – the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – has a specific role in that the Party Leader must be drawn from its number and all candidates for the leadership must secure nomination from at least 15% of its membership to be allowed to stand in a national leadership election. During the Blair years, the party leadership took great pains to ensure that only individuals fitting a very narrow set of criteria, both ideologically and presentationally, were selected as candidates in winnable constituencies. There was less that the Blairite leadership could do to ensure that the actual party membership conformed to their idea of what good citizens should look like, so instead various mechanisms were introduced to ensure that the membership, and in particular the local party organisations in which activist culture tended to be strong, lost almost all influence over either policy-making or candidate-selection.

The Internal Politics of the Labour Party

To understand the emergent situation, it’s also necessary to have some sense of the internal political topology of the Labour Party. Broadly speaking, there are four main political currents which can be identified as still active in the party: the “hard left,” the “soft left,” the old Labour right, and the Blairites. None of these have had any official institutional form, although there have been formal organisations clearly associated with specific tendencies (such as the organisation Progress, which effectively functions as a Blairite caucus and cheerleading team). These are at best casual labels for tendencies which are themselves internally differentiated, but they are useful reference points nonetheless.

The old Labour right has historically tended to support social democratic redistributive programmes and Keynesian industrial strategies, while being ideologically committed to NATO, Atlanticism and nuclear deterrence, and having no interest in any radical anti-capitalist programme or in indulging the democratic demands of grassroots members or other political and social constituencies. In class terms this tradition is arguably the product of the historic post-war alliance between organised labour and industrial capital. One of the most interesting and misunderstood features of the old Labour right politics is the ideological nature of its Atlanticism. The best way to understand this is to recall that the Cold War, in its earliest phases, was not fought between Gorbachev and Reagan (which is the phase now best remembered in the West), but between Stalin’s USSR and the New Deal administration in the US – an administration which did much to shore up and support the expansion of Western European social democracy. For this particular tradition, then, Atlanticist and pro-nuclear commitments are not merely a symptom of craven deference to the imperial hegemon across the Atlantic. Rather, they are an expression of a historic allegiance to democratic socialism against state-capitalist authoritarianism. This may be nonsense when considered with any degree of objectivity, but it is what adherents to this tradition actually believe.

The hard and soft left can be understood as emerging from the bifurcation of the traditional left after the moment of its greatest success in the party: the early 80s. The members of the hard left are still sometimes referred to as Bennites, a reference to their iconic leader Tony Benn, who came close to taking the deputy leadership (and arguably even the leadership) of the party at that time. Bennism is an odd mixture of Marxist analysis and aspiration, a hypothetical commitment to working with social movements, and a “Labourist” political strategy little different from that favoured by the old Labour right: in other words, a strategy which assumes that the Labour Party alone, seeking to win parliamentary majorities within the existing parliamentary system, is a largely sufficient vehicle for the implementation of its programme. That programme has traditionally been conceived as a classical left-Keynesian one of nationalisation, exit from the EU, imposition of capital controls and increased taxes on the rich (although the Bennites were always also interested in more radical measures such as the extension of co-operatives and workers’ control in industry). There is no sign that today the hard left would try to implement anything so old-fashioned. The shadow finance minister, John McDonnell, despite a reputation for being the most “hardline” of the Bennites, is an open-minded and inquiring thinker who has been building an impressive network of advisors, including such luminaries as Thomas Picketty and Mariana Mazzucato.1 In fact there would seem to be no difference at all now between the emergent McDonnell programme, and economic proposals issuing from traditionally “soft left” organisations such as Compass.2 When it comes to the question of whether Labour is a social movement or a mere vote-winning machine, the Bennites have always been the tendency in the party which has been least committed to the idea that winning elections is the only realistic political goal of the Labour Party at any given time. Unfortunately, they have also generally been reticent – to the point of silence – about what coherent alternative strategy could actually forge a road to socialism, and thereby they have presented a public face which often seems simply indifferent to the basic Gramscian question: how do you build a winning social coalition from a position of weakness?

“Soft left” is the name still sometimes given to a tendency which crystallised in the wake of the battles between the hard left and the old Labour right in the early 80s.3 Historically, this tendency shares much of the analysis and aspiration of the hard left, but tries to marry this with both electoral pragmatism and a more open attitude to political strategy. The early soft left also saw itself as learning lessons from Mitterrand’s failure to implement much the same economic programme as that recommended by the Bennites. The soft left was never happy about the idea of leaving the EU, although exactly what alternative they proposed was never fully clear (a weakness which led a number of the soft left to embrace technocratic neoliberalism, becoming leading Blairites, in the 1990s).  This group also tends to be more interested than any other in a broad range of democratic demand. As a result, the soft left is the current which has been most enthusiastic in advocating major reform of the UK Constitution, even when such a reform would reduce the chances of a majority Labour government being able to implement its programme unhindered by the need to work with other parties. “Soft” was never merely a pejorative term, but was a self–designation by which members of this tendency sought to distance themselves from the perceived rigidity, dogmatism, sectarianism and macho style of the “hard” left (a style which, importantly, many members of the “hard” left political tradition would today themselves find embarrassing). If any tendency represents the political centre-of-gravity of the actual Labour Party membership over the past few decades it is the soft left, and at least two of its leaders (Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband) have been identified with it.

The Blairites only emerged in the 90s. They never had much of a base in the party, and remain committed, like their “Third Way” comrades in countries like the US and Germany, to a neoliberal socio-economic programme boosted by some meritocratic social reforms (a program designed to enable social mobility without reducing social inequality – of course this is a physical impossibility and such programmes only ever succeed in increasing inequality). In class terms, the Blairites represent a historically novel alignment between a professionalised political elite and sections of finance capital. Their weakness in the party was evinced by their candidate (Liz Kendall) coming in as a humiliating fourth in the 2015 leadership election. Interestingly, when Labour has not been in government, they have tended to be more sympathetic to calls for proportional representation in parliament in comparison with the hard left or old Labour right: it seems to suit their self-image as Europhile modernisers. This is not a self–image which has anything to do with the reality of their behaviour in government, however; in such situations they have always adopted a position of unwavering Atlanticism and utter indifference to serious democratic reform.4

How on Earth did Jeremy Corbyn get Elected?

In this context, how did it ever come about that a figure from the smallest and weakest of these tendencies found himself leader of the Labour Party? In retrospect it seems clear now that two key changes in the culture and constitution of the Labour Party since 2010 made possible Jeremy Corbyn’s eventual shock victory. One was a significant change to the rules governing the election of the party leader which had entirely unexpected consequences. Again, it’s necessary to understand some technical details of the Labour Party constitution and its history in order to understand how this change came about.

Throughout its history, the Labour Party has been an organisation composed of multiple elements and informed by competing ideas as to what kind of organisation it should be. Founded at the beginning of the 20th century, explicitly in order to achieve the goal of getting working class trade-unionists into parliament, Labour was from the beginning a federation of other organisations: principally of unions and socialist societies. Indeed, in its earliest iteration there was no such thing as an individual member of the Labour Party – only by joining one of its federated components could an individual become a member of the party.

From the very beginning there was a marked tension between the idea of the party as a vehicle for a democratic mass movement, and the understanding that its sole function was to create, maintain, service and serve the interest of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The latter view largely prevailed at a national level until the beginning of the 1980s, although since early in the century there had been many municipalities in which Labour was able to transform local communities without access to, or support from, national government. Up to this time, electing the leader remained the sole prerogative of the PLP. The early 80s saw both an influx of left-wing activists to the party and a radicalisation of key sections of its membership and of the trade unions: this was the high water-mark of Bennism. Faced with the open hostility of the Thatcher government both to trade unions and to any form of socialist politics, as the Thatcher/Reagan/Brezhnev phase of the cold war intensified, many activists were radicalised by a belief that some final showdown between capital and labour, at least in the UK, was in the offing.

Young Jeremy Corbyn being arrested in London
In 1984, the young Jeremy Corbyn is arrested outside the South African Embassy in London for protesting against the Apartheid regime.

It is also worth remembering here that the earliest manifestations of British neoliberalism – the monetarist programme of public spending cuts, and the rapid contraction of Britain’s industrial manufacturing base – did not begin under Thatcher, but were already well under way by the time of her victory over the incumbent Labour administration in 1979. In particular, the 1974-79 Labour government had capitulated to an IMF-imposed structural adjustment plan in an attempt to stabilise the currency, becoming the first major government in the “developed” world to do so. Widespread disillusion with the party and with its old right-wing, from which the prime minister and finance minister of the period had been drawn, was therefore understandable, and fierce battles were fought between right and left over issues ranging from policy and programme to the presence of openly (or secretly) Trotskyist sections within the party.

Perhaps the bitterest of these fights emerged from the struggle to empower both members and affiliated organisations (in particular the unions) in the election of the party leadership. The compromise outcome of this battle was the creation of an electoral college granting one third of votes for the leadership to the PLP, one third to the unions, and one third to the “constituency parties” (local party organisations controlled by and representing individual members). Although the Left was never satisfied with the amount of power which the parliamentary party retained under this dispensation, it was enough of a blow to the right of the PLP that a significant section split off to create the ill-fated “Social Democratic Party.”

Significantly, the other key demand of the Left at this time was for mechanisms that would reduce the independence of MPs from their constituency parties. Labour MPs have traditionally not been bound by mandates from their members, and have not been easy to remove once in office; this independence has been jealously guarded by Labour MPs since the formation of the party, and has always been resented by its more radical rank and file. Some concessions were made to the demand for more accountability for MPs, but these were largely rescinded and even reversed over the course of the 1990s, as the parliamentary party became more and more compliant to an increasingly-centralised leadership, while local parties lost almost all of the power which they once had.5 In practice, the electoral college also allowed the PLP to remain by far the most important section of the party when it came to electing that leadership.

Here is where things become ambiguous and rather complex. The Blairites had always understood the weakening of local constituency parties as central to their goals, believing them to be a breeding ground for activists who were by their very nature unrepresentative of, and isolated from, the wider public. They were always more complacent, however, about the idea of empowering individual members, believing (with some reason) that the typical individual Labour Party member was not an activist, did not participate in the culture of their local constituency party, mainly relied for political information on national media outlets and on the party’s centralised communications structures, and as such could be expected to be largely compliant with the leadership’s programme at any given time, and to support programmes and leaderships which were more likely to be popular with a wider public, especially with swing voters in marginal constituencies, than would be those supported by full-time party activists. At the same time, almost all sections of the Labour party elite have been infatuated by American politics since the 1940s, and have traditionally been slavish in their devotion to the Democratic leadership at any given moment (the spectacle of former Blairite cabinet ministers taking career breaks to train as community organisers in imitation of Obama’s early career is a particularly embarrassing example).6 Partly for this reason, the idea of holding open primaries to select the party leader and parliamentary candidates had always appealed to Blairites as well as to sections of the soft left (US readers should note that the primary system is not normal in most liberal democracies, where the norm is for the selection of candidates to be confined to full party members). The soft left had tended to see open primaries as a potentially meaningful democratic reform while the Blairites believed that the introduction of primaries or any comparable system could only weaken further the influence of committed party activists, whose influence they believe can never be weak enough.

This combined history explains why there was very little opposition when the Labour leader at the time, Ed Miliband – who had been elected by the electoral college in 2010, despite his rather weak support within the PLP – introduced a radical change to the leadership rules, granting equal authority to all party members, while creating a new category of registered party “supporter” who would only have to pay a nominal registration fee in order to join and acquire full voting rights. This was widely seen as an attack more on the continued influence of the trade unions (the other third of the electoral college) than on the PLP; neither the PLP nor the right of the party generally seem to have perceived the changes as any threat to them. Blair welcomed the changes enthusiastically.

This was the first change which made Corbyn’s victory possible. The other was subtler, but almost as important. It must be understood here that Corbyn’s actual support in the PLP – the proportion of PLP members who openly campaigned for him and cast their votes for him as individual party members – does not come close to 15%. Under normal circumstances, he would not ever be expected to have achieved enough nominations to get on the ballot. However, an important precedent had been set during the previous leadership election. The favourite to win the leadership at the time, Ed Miliband’s more right-wing brother David Miliband, the darling of the Blairites and of the PLP, had made a gesture of asking a proportion of the MPs who had been planning to nominate him, to nominate instead Diane Abbott. At that time, Abbot was the only black woman in parliament, and a well-known public face of the hard left.

There were a number of motivations for the gesture. On the one hand it was impelled by an honest commitment to liberal feminism and liberal anti-racism which the Blairites share with other “left” neoliberals around the world; that there should be no women or black people on the ballot was an embarrassment which they genuinely wished to avoid. On the other hand, it signified the absolute confidence of the Blairites – and indeed the rest of the party – that the hard left had absolutely no hope of impacting the contest in any significant way, never mind actually winning it. In this sense the gesture was symptomatic of the widespread belief that the Left was effectively dead as a political force in the UK, and the conviction among Blairites that the New Labour project to isolate and neutralise the Left within the party had been completed. This is not to say that the Blairites simply controlled the party. It was fully recognised at the time that David’s younger brother Ed, associated with the soft left, might, as he eventually did, win the 2010 leadership election. But it was assumed that the Bennite tradition represented by a handful of MPs – most of them, like Corbyn and Abbott, representing London constituencies – was an irrelevance which its vanquishers could now afford to indulge with some opportunities to campaign and speechify. We should not attribute too much cynicism to this gesture – a genuine belief in the value of internal debate and democratic pluralism does seem to have been part of David Miliband’s motivation for “lending” some of his nominations to Abbott, as was described.

In 2015 the situation was slightly different. No candidate had quite the level of support from the PLP which David Miliband had enjoyed in 2010, and the leading candidate – Andy Burhnam – had less reason to be complacent about a rival candidate to his left (from where he hoped to draw much of his support). On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn was a more personally popular figure with the party and the PLP than the often-abrasive Diane Abbott (who of course has to contend with racism and sexism in ways which Corbyn doesn’t), being widely perceived as an extremely decent human being and a highly conscientious campaigner and constituency representative. And it was widely assumed that Jeremy Corbyn was about as likely to become leader of the Labour Party as Trotskyist postman Olivier Bensancanot was to become leader of the French socialist party. So with the help of some votes lent by supporters of other candidates, following the 2010 precedent, Corbyn got on the ballot at the last possible moment (having been pushed to stand by colleagues who felt it important that a Left voice was heard in the contest). We can be fairly sure that given what followed, this is a precedent which will never be acted on again.

What followed was an unprecedented influx of members and supporters into the party, almost all of whom joined or registered in order to vote for Corbyn. Although huge rallies in support of Corbyn were held around the country, there is little dispute that social media played a decisive role in enabling his otherwise disaggregated potential support base to coalesce and recognise its collective potential. Most evidence suggests that the new members were roughly equally divided between older former members returning to a party which had become too right-wing for them under Blair’s leadership, and younger members, most of whom had never previously belonged to a political party, although some may have been members of the Greens or small far left groups. At the same time evidence also shows that a significant section of the existing membership, most of whom would have voted for Ed Miliband in 2010, voted for Corbyn rather than the perceived front-runner and soft-left candidate, Andy Burnham.

This switch of allegiance from a small but strategically significant section of the membership is notable here.The success of the New Labour project was always predicated on the willingness of both the old Labour right (who will traditionally support any programme or leadership they think likely to deliver electoral success) and the soft left to defer to the leadership of the Blairites, whose cadres were mostly former members of the soft left themselves. Indeed, Blairisim arguably emerged from the attempt of the soft left in the late 1980s to develop a programme and an electoral strategy which responded effectively to the UK’s transition to a largely post-industrial economy.7 As such it took a long time for many members of the soft left tradition to accept that rather than being a radical project for egalitarian and democratic modernisation, New Labour in government amounted to little more than a total capitulation to the hegemony of finance capital.8 By 2010, however, this fact had become apparent to enough of them to enable Ed Miliband to confound predictions by beating his Blairite brother to the leadership.

By 2015, the over-caution, incoherence and ultimate electoral failure of that leadership had led a significant section of the established membership to the conclusion that perhaps the Bennites had been right all along. My own position as an individual party member, historically associated with the more radical end of the soft left, was spelled out in an article published on the open Democracy website in July 2015 that was surprisingly widely-read for a 5,000 word political essay.9 Put simply, that position was, as it remains, that the soft left strategy had now been tested to destruction, and that the only logical response was to support Corbyn’s bid for the leadership, while arguing for a far more imaginative strategy than the Bennites had ever previously shown themselves capable of implementing.

The Crisis of the British Party System

So we have dealt with the detailed politics. What of the broader social context and the long-term political implications of these developments? At a national level, the emergence of Corbynism can be seen as merely the latest episode in the story of the long-term break up of the British party system. In the post-war period, Britain effectively became a two-party democracy, with the residual rump of the Liberal Party retaining support almost exclusively at the rural fringes, in parts of Scotland and the English West country that had remained almost untouched by industrialisation. A slight revival of Liberal fortunes in the 60s and 70s coincided with the Labour split of the early 80s, resulting in an alliance and then a merger between the new Social Democratic Party and the Liberals, ending in the formation of a new centrist party – the liberal democrats, which was able to secure 17–22% of the vote consistently over the course of the 1990s and 2000s (although it never got more than about 12% of MPs). The 2010 election result finally saw that party hold the balance of power, entering into a coalition with the Conservatives, its leadership apparently believing that a coalition with Labour was unworkable and that “stable” government was necessary to save the country from economic collapse.

The party’s supporters punished it savagely for this decision in 2015, its vote share collapsing from 22% to 7%. This did not benefit the vote share of the two major parties, however. The Greens have been a force in local and European elections since 1989, and secured over 1 million votes in 2015, despite only winning one constituency. The right-wing populist, anti-Europe UK Independence Party (UKIP) also only won a single MP in 2015, despite achieving 12.5% of the national vote, becoming a significant vehicle for both working-class and petit-bourgeois protest votes against a political class which is perceived as remote and self-interested. This clearly parallels the rise of right-wing populist parties in other European countries, although it is also worth noting the specifically British features of the situation. In particular, actual classical racism, and even national socialism, of the type associated with far-right parties from the Golden Dawn to the Front National, is historically very weak in the UK, where xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment are not easily translated into support for more extreme forms of racism, from which the UKIP leadership is obliged to distance itself on a daily basis. More significant than any of these developments, however, was the fact that at the 2015 General Election the Scottish National Party annihilated the Labour Party in its traditional stronghold of Scotland, winning almost every constituency and depriving Labour of over 40 seats that it had previously held.

The Scottish Precedent

The situation in Scotland is a crucial element of the context here, and is the outcome of an extraordinary and, again, unexpected sequence of events. Scotland was accorded a high level of national autonomy by the Blair administration, achieving a level of independence comparable with that of a US state or a German Land. In recent years the social democratic, pro-independence SNP has been building support steadily at municipal and Scottish levels. The SNP government called a referendum on independence from the UK in 2014 which it convincingly lost –but only in the face of visible panic on the part of the entire British establishment as the polls began to show a far higher level of support for independence than had been expected, forcing all of the major party leaders (including Cameron) to promise significant extensions to Scotland’s devolved autonomy  should the country choose to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The pro-independence campaign was widely reported as the most exciting instance of grassroots mass mobilisation seen anywhere in the UK within living memory, and succeeded in consolidating an explicitly anti-neoliberal, anti-austerity social democratic common-sense and rendering it hegemonic within Scottish political culture. The entirely unexpected sequel to the “No” victory in the independence referendum campaign was a huge influx of newly-mobilised left-wing activists into the SNP and, to a lesser extent, the Scottish Green Party, as well as a massive surge in support for the SNP at constituency levels. The collective desire of the Scottish people was therefore expressed in a remarkable series of events which were seemingly unplanned and unwilled by any section of their own political leaderships: independence was rejected, but so was the Scottish section of the Parliamentary Labour Party (widely perceived as supinely Blairite in character), as the political complexion of the SNP was itself transformed from being mildly social democratic to much more determinedly so, a large bloc of radical SNP MPs was installed in parliament to represent the Scots there, and significant extensions of devolution were secured. Both nationalism and neoliberalism were comprehensively rejected.

There’s no question that this turn of events proved a major inspiration for those who believed that the Labour Party in England and Wales could also be radically transformed by an influx of committed radicals over the summer of 2015. At the same time, the SNP victory effectively dealt a body blow to Blairism in the Labour Party which greatly increased Corbyn’s chances of success. On a larger scale, however, all of these developments can be seen as responses both to the weakening of neoliberalism’s hegemonic authority across the European Union, and to the ongoing pluralisation of national polities and cultures which has been a feature of the entire period since the end of the 1960s.

Jeremy Corbyn speaking with trade union
Jeremy Corbyn stands with members of trade unions at a London event outlining his plans for a publicly owned railway network, August 18, 2015. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Neoliberal Europe

My contention for some years – and of course I’m not alone in this – has been that the emergence of neoliberalism as an actual political project must be understood in large part as a reaction by capitalist elites to the terrifying upsurge of democratic demands which emerged in the 1960s.10 There was nothing inevitable about the adoption by those elites, from around the mid-1970s, of the general neoliberal programme: a set of ideas and proposals which had been issuing from the Mont Perelin Society and its legatees for several decades by that point. Rather, in the mid-70s these ideas and policies provided a convenient set of discursive tools for responding to a new historic situation. This situation was characterised both by an incipient technological revolution which offered capital the opportunity of rescinding many of the concessions made to governments and organised labour in the post-war period, and by a rising tide of democratic demands to which capitalism had to find an answer if it was to survive the 70s at all.

From the late 60s onwards, the automation of manufacturing, as well as the outsourcing opportunities created by new communications technologies and the containerisation of shipping, created historic opportunities to shift the balance of power between capital and labour in the core manufacturing countries. At the same time, the possibility that socialists might use the new computer technologies to facilitate their own objectives was something that  certain sections of the capitalist elite were themselves acutely aware of.11 At the same time again, the scale of material expectation from populations who were becoming used to ever-rising living standards, and the intensity of the democratic challenges to existing distributions of power and authority issuing from new social movements, were such that liberal democratic capitalism appeared to face a genuine existential threat. “Actually existing neoliberalism”12 – to which ever-expanding private consumption and debt was always fundamental – was a response to this situation. It both neutralised many of those demands (by enabling private consumption and facilitating a pluralisation of consumption-oriented lifestyles), and re-asserted the supremacy of finance capital over both industrial capital and the rest of the population for the first time since the great crash of 1929.13

A crucial element of this process has been the gradual evisceration of democratic institutions and almost all forms of public and collective agency since the 1970s. Again, this is a situation in which neoliberalism and the interests which it expresses have taken advantage of an underlying social and cultural shift. The pluralisation of lifestyles and the democratisation of values which characterise “postmodern” societies were clearly anticipated by the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But the most far-sighted ideologues of that revolution always saw its impetus to cultural pluralisation as inseparable from a certain collectivism. This collectivism was expressed most clearly by demands for a genuine democratisation of both culture and politics which would have seen that pluralisation become the condition of possibility for the extension of radically participatory and deliberative mechanisms of self-government across much of society. This, after all, was the shared goal of thinkers and activists from Angela Davies to Alexander Dubcek; from Port Huron to Santiago. The founder of my own discipline, Raymond Williams, made his case for them as early as 1961.14 The brilliance of the neoliberal response was to make this process of pluralisation instead the context for an individualisation and marketisation of politics and culture which would ultimately undermine many of the democratic gains of the previous century.15 Instead of radical democracy, we got a process of ongoing and ubiquitous privatisation, administered by a technocratic elite accountable only to their masters in the bond markets and the banks.

From this perspective, arguably neoliberalism’s greatest triumph has been the creation of the European Union as a technocratic institution, irrevocably and constitutionally committed to the implementation of the neoliberal programme. There was nothing necessarily inevitable about the EU becoming what it has – at the turn of the 1990s, with the implementation of the famous “social chapter” of the Maastricht treaty enshrining workers’ right across the continent (driven by the Spanish socialists, at the peak of their political effectiveness), it seemed plausible that the EU could become institutionally oriented towards a sort of redistributive Euro-Keynesianism. The hegemony of neoliberalism in both Germany and the UK in the 90s and 2000s, even under nominally social-democratic administrations, buried that dream forever. The consequences of this, and of the political weakness of the Left across Northern and Eastern Europe, have been dire. Since the crisis of 2008, European governments, particularly those in the Eurozone (which the UK is not) have been locked into an austerity agenda which has contrasted sharply with the weakly Keynesian reflationary policies of the Obama administration, and which has predictably failed to produce growth comparable to that in the US.

Austerity in the UK

The UK is in fact caught between these two positions in a quite peculiar way. The actual implementation of austerity by the UK government has been half-hearted at best, and modest growth has returned to the economy largely because of the government’s willingness to follow the Fed in implementing quantitative easing and historically low interest rates. On the other hand, the government, and more importantly their allies in the press – have consistently deployed a pro-austerity rhetoric in order to construct a familiar political narrative. According to this narrative, the reason that living standards, wage levels and public spending have still not returned to pre-2008 levels – and never seem likely to – is that the previous Labour government spent too much money, saddling the country with an enormous deficit which it is now obliged to pay off as quickly as it can, while unchecked immigration and the pernicious parasitism of lazy welfare-claimants remain an excessive drain on the public purse. Despite no statistical evidence for their validity, all polls suggest that the latter elements of this tale are, depressingly, very widely believed, including by poor, settled ethnic minority communities.16

The former myth, according to which it was the Labour government rather than an international financial meltdown which generated the UK government’s substantial deficit, has always been a tougher sell for the elites. After all, they are themselves widely remembered for their part in unravelling the global economy. As such, this story is far less widely believed. But it doesn’t really matter. The reader will recall my explanation that only a few hundred thousand voters in the UK ever really determine the outcome of elections, and it is to this particular group of voters alone that this message has been ruthlessly and relentlessly targeted by key media outlets (most notably newspapers such as the Daily Mail). They believe it, and that is enough. By their very nature, these swing voters in marginal constituencies tend to be easily manipulated, individualistic, with a “consumer” attitude to politics. They represent middle-income groups in what is sometimes called “Middle England.” This imaginary territory is composed largely of small to medium sized towns whose economies are dominated by retail and commercial services, and whose culture tends to be dictated by the large media and commercial corporations whose institutions (stores, malls, newspapers, TV channels) that provide the framework of everyday life and the main channels of information. State schools and the institutions of the National Health Service remain powerful bastions of a different, more egalitarian culture to that propagated by Capital and its agencies. As such, they have been a source of frustration for neoliberal ideologues since the early days of Thatcherism. They are, however, increasingly powerless to extend that culture beyond their most immediate constituencies (direct employees and daily service-users). Under these circumstances, it is easy enough for political and financial elites to convince large numbers of such voters of whatever story they want to.

Neoliberal Hegemony in Decline?

This, I think, is quite typical of the way in which neoliberal hegemony is engineered across Western Europe and much of the rest of the world. Today that hegemony remains effectively unchallenged in Europe, as the fate of the Syriza experiment to date has made painfully clear. But that does not mean that its reach and its potency are as great as they were prior to the financial crisis of 2008. Hegemony is a complex situation, and can take multiple, internally differentiated forms. One of its most obvious and recurrent features is the capacity of those who enjoy it to present a particular political agenda, or state of affairs, as effectively unchallengeable: as that to which there is no alternative; as common-sense, no less. At the same time, it is always a mistake to confuse hegemony with a situation of simple, active, enthusiastic endorsement for hegemonic projects on the part of those who are subjected to them.

Throughout the era of neoliberal hegemony, in fact, actual neoliberal policies have rarely enjoyed a significant popular mandate. In the UK, for example, no opinion poll since the mid-1980s has shown majority support for the extensive programme of public-sector privatisation which has been arguably the defining government policy of the period. The social groups who have benefitted from this programme and in whose interests it has been conducted – finance capital and those class fractions in the media, the tech industries, retail, etc. who are most directly in its orbit – are routinely deferred to by politicians and policy makers. But they are not regarded by the wider public as possessing any special legitimacy or moral authority. Instead, a vast and continuous expansion of credit-financed private consumption is surely what has secured consent to the continuation of this basically unpopular programme amongst large sections of the public. I would contend that across most of Europe, only relatively small, though strategically-significant populations (senior executives, for example) ever really bought into the neoliberal world-view (this may or may not constitute a significant difference between Europe and the US). As such, from the mid 1970s until the crisis of 2008, it was neoliberal capitalism’s promise of private luxury which was the basic condition for consent to it, rather than any real ideological enthusiasm for it, or even any widespread acceptance of its norms, that led the way. This is not to suggest that such a means of winning consent was ineffective, however. Quite the contrary – when the public already agrees that the government is doing the wrong thing, but has decided to accept the bribes anyway, what possible argument can self-respecting Leftists use to try to dissuade a cynical citizenry?

Under such circumstances, even those groups who were most opposed to neoliberalism were until recently forced to accept it as something that effectively could not be challenged at a public political level, except in purely symbolic or theatrical terms. In the UK this acceptance took the institutional form we have discussed: the most traditionally radical sections of Labour’s natural support base, and the vast majority of its membership, acquiesced to the leadership of the Blairites, or at least declined to challenge their legacy in any serious way.

The 2008 crisis manifested the inability of financial elites and governments to reproduce a growth model based on continual expansion of private debt, and this ability has really not returned since. Unsurprisingly, it is precisely in those places and amongst those social constituencies where their capacity to keep offering compensations for the gradual erosion of democracy and social solidarity has been weakest that political opposition to neoliberalism has emerged most dramatically. The obvious examples here are Greece and Spain, but even in the UK, among those sections of the population who either cannot be bought off (because there are no resources left to buy them with) or won’t be, that a left resurgence has emerged which seems unlikely to abate any time soon. This is a particularly notable phenomenon among the young, who across Europe, have seen the gradual erosion of social and economic entitlements since the 1970s, to the point where many now have very little left to lose.

In the specific case of the UK, it is notable that most opinion polls and social attitude surveys have demonstrated the existence of a pretty consistent bloc of public opinion since the beginning of the 1980s, which in effect endorses a Marxist perspective on all important issues, and which probably consists of around 20–25% of the electorate.17 A recent extensive survey of contemporary political opinion showing the same finding was widely reported as demonstrating how out of touch Corbyn and the new Labour membership are with “ordinary voters.” because only about 20–25 % of such voters agree with them on all (rather than just some) major issues.18 But in any normal parliamentary democracy, a body of opinion shared by a quarter of the population would be expected to have significant public representation. It was, I think, symptomatic of neoliberal hegemony at its height that this 20–25% was pretty much denied representation altogether, and that it largely acquiesced in this denial. At the moment when neoliberal hegemony is weakening, but not yet subject to any major political challenge, it is understandable that this constituency should begin to revive a sense of its collective identity and political potential.

Protestor wearing anti-nuclear buttons
An attendee of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament conference in London, England, October 17, 2015, addressed by the newly elected Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, shows his support for various causes. (Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

The question of who exactly comprises this 20–25% is not too difficult to answer. What we might call “the metropolitan left” is made up in part of the London-based liberal intelligentsia that are despised by conservative commentators in all parties, but it also includes large numbers of low-paid workers in cities such as London, Leeds and Manchester, especially in the public sector. It also includes smaller university towns as well as certain “traditional” working class populations in former industrial and mining areas where socialism was traditionally popular (parts of Yorskhire and South Wales, for example). These are Corbyn’s people. It has come as an extraordinary shock to the professional political classes to find that they have not disappeared, but had merely been acquiescent in recent decades. Even more upsetting is the fact that they are apparently no longer willing to accept a form of party discipline which denied them all representation and subjugated them to the authority of the professional political class. It is remarkable that none of the commentary – none at all – that has emerged from the professional British commentariat on this issue, makes the very simple point that the presence of a political constituency with this kind of politics and this kind of social base is actually typical of a contemporary European democracy. This is probably because the entire professional British commentariat knows next to nothing about European politics, obsessed as they are with their own counterparts across the Atlantic.

Blairite Reaction

Neither Corbyn’s critics nor his supporters seem to have any real idea what to do about the fact that this newly-recovered constituency is not going to go away and is also not capable of mobilising a broad enough social coalition to implement an alternative political programme. The panic and fear among the political class – especially elite commentators – have been palpable. Even the Guardian has shocked its readership with the vehemence of much of its anti-Corbyn editorialising.19 In part, the Guardian has been demonstrating its loyalty to fellow members of the professional political class within the Labour Party itself, the intensity of whose petulant rage at Corbyn’s victory has surprised even those who expected it. Corbyn has had to tolerate a series of disloyal public pronouncements from right-wing MPs (from both the old Labour right and the Blairite camps) which have invariably been given far more media attention than their significance warranted, as well as serious dissent from within the shadow cabinet over key foreign policy issues, such as military intervention in Syria (to which Corbyn, a long-term critic of Western policy in the Middle East, is vehemently opposed). At the same time, endless commentary from previously pro-Labour journalists as well as from the right-wing press and even from the BBC has sought to undermine him at every turn.20

Two main lines of attack have typified the anti-Corbyn commentary. On the one hand, Corbyn’s personal style is very different from the tub-thumping populism of a Bernie Sanders. He is quietly spoken, unpolemical, a poor orator and at the same time easily enraged by the transparent bias and bad faith demonstrated by journalists and media editors. These are precisely the unpretentious characteristics for which his supporters adore him, but they are easily portrayed by enemies as symptoms of his unfitness to lead. Whether he will be able to develop a more widely appealing public persona – whether he will even try – remains to be seen. It must be recalled at this point that this is a 66-year-old man who had to be persuaded to run in the leadership contest, and believed that he was doing so purely as a favour to his small, residual faction. He almost certainly would never have run if anyone had believed he had a chance of winning, and he cannot be blamed for lacking an immediate game plan when the unthinkable happened. It may also be that if the campaign that brought him to the leadership can sustain itself as a broader popular movement beyond 2015, then his lack of traditional charisma may simply not matter much. Nonetheless, it provides his critics even on the soft left with ample ammunition, and constitutes a source of frustration to his less devoted supporters.

The second line of attack is perhaps more significant, and is directed not at Corbyn but at his partisans. When the campaign to elect him as the party leader began to gather momentum, the cliché to which the commentariat resorted most frequently was to denounce the social media “echo chamber” for creating the illusion that he could possibly win amongst his deluded supporters. When he won – with the most astonishing mandate (nearly two thirds of the vote) – they simply redeployed this trope in order to denounce the party as a whole for its idiocy in having selected him. Such commentary is usually framed in terms of a fear that by choosing an “unelectable” leader, the party has condemned the country to permanent Tory rule. The real source of fear for the media allies of the Blairites, however, is the threat posed to them by Corbyn’s express plan to see through the unfinished Bennite business of the 1980s, fully democratising the party’s electoral and policy-making processes. It is not yet known precisely what form this democratisation will take, but it is widely assumed, with good justification, that if successful it will not enable a situation to persist in which the parliamentary party is made up almost entirely of MPs who transparently do not share the politics, the ideals, or even the social backgrounds of the vast majority of party members.

The grassroots organisation, appropriately named “Momentum,” which is in the process of being constituted out of the groups and networks which sprang up to support Corbyn’s leadership bid, has been the subject of hysterical attacks even from the deputy leader of the party, Tom Watson21 (a kind of old Labour right throwback figure, despite being 20 years younger than Corbyn, who earned some popularity a couple of years ago for picking, and winning, a fight with the Murdoch press). The tone of these attacks has been unsurprising to anyone familiar with the history of antidemocratic discourse in the West. “Mob” and “rabble” are the terms which have been regularly bandied about to describe this entirely benign network of individuals whose only political action so far has been to run local voter registration drives.22 Of course, the use of such terms reveals more than their users intend. Although critics on the right of the party claim to be afraid that Momentum represents a return of the secretive far-left factions who did cause major problems for the Labour leadership in the early 80s, it is clear enough that they are even more afraid that Momentum might turn out to be exactly what it claims: a genuine grassroots organisation committed to radical democracy. That is absolutely the last thing which almost any current member of the PLP wants to see wielding influence within the Labour Party.

Although opinion polls have consistently shown Labour to be trailing the Conservatives since he became leader, Corbyn’s first real electoral test came in a by-election in December in the Northern market town of Oldham.23 This is precisely the kind of constituency traditionally held by Labour, but whose working class population is too distant – culturally and geographically – from any major urban or industrial centre for it to be easily incorporated into the metropolitan left. The legatees of the old Labour right have been warning for several years that unless Labour adopts a socially conservative communitarian rhetoric, explicitly hostile to mass immigration, then it will inevitably lose such constituencies to UKIP. The Blairites, conversely, warn that unless it continues to speak the language of aspiration and social mobility, Labour will lose them to the Tories. It was confidently predicted that the Labour vote would fall dramatically at this by-election – the only question was whether it would fall by enough to provoke an immediate challenge to Corbyn’s leadership from within the party. In fact the Labour vote went up, boosted by a high turnout from a sizeable South Asian population whose support for Corbyn is motivated by precisely the same radical foreign policy stance (hostile to intervention in Syria, to the war on terror, and to nuclear weapons – even lukewarm about NATO membership) which the press has been telling us proves that Corbyn is unelectable.

The Futures of Corbynism

Where that leaves the Corbyn project now, is very far from clear. It is likely that success in Oldham could be replicated in many places with comparable demographics. But the fact is that there are many towns Labour would have to win in order to form a government in which the demographics are less favourable to Corbyn. And in fact, the local opinion polls (to which none of the commentators seemed to be paying attention in November) were predicting a strong Labour victory in Oldham. They are not predicting a strong Labour victory across the country any time soon. The polling data seems pretty clear. The metropolitan left is behind him, and its reach remains far more extensive than most commentators previously assumed. Corbyn’s achievement in rallying that bloc for the first time in a generation cannot be denied. But with the media so hostile and the left such a weak force overall, the capacity of that group to extend its influence and become the leading force of a wider social coalition is at best limited.

More fundamentally, it is not at all clear that Corbyn and his team have any interest in achieving such a goal. They are not Gramscians, by training or instinct, but, if anything, traditional Leninists. As far as anyone can tell at the present time, their calculation is that the coming economic crash and the disarray that the Conservatives will find themselves in after the imminent referendum on membership of the EU (a large chunk of the Tory membership will campaign for exit and will not be reconciled when they lose) may be sufficient to upend all the normal rules of UK electoral politics. In such a case, Corbyn’s team probably hope that they will be able to take power amidst the chaos. What they plan to do in any other eventuality remains unclear. If this is what they are hoping for, then the scenario which they envisage is not implausible: another economic crisis would be very bad for the current government,  in particular because the right has invested so much of their political capital over the past 6 years in the claim that it is able to manage the economy, while making almost no pretense at being able to do anything else for the country and its people. But in strategic terms, hoping for such an outcome amounts to little more than a random throw of the dice.

In recent weeks Corbyn has really chosen to assert his authority within the party and the PLP for the first time since becoming leader. In a concerted effort, he has set to move the party away from support for the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons programme (unilateral nuclear disarmament was one of the totemic policies of the hard left in the early 80s). This is a move which has dismayed political pragmatists among his supporters, who see it as an entirely unnecessary and unpopular gesture which will compromise his ability to build a popular consensus against advancing neoliberal austerity. But this assumes that the latter is what he wants to do. Which isn’t clear at all. Many of Corbyn’s supporters simply take the view that there is no good chance of Labour winning the 2020 general election anyway, so weak is its current electoral position, and so it would be better to lose with a morally and politically substantial programme than on another incoherent and vacuous one.

Straight Talking, Honest Politics

What would it take, what could it take, besides the intervention of a series of unpredictable externalities, to carry the momentum of Corbyn’s leadership campaign forward and into some strategically viable radical projects? Above all, I think, it would mean taking absolutely seriously Corbyn’s popular campaign slogan – “straight talking, honest politics” – and taking that straight-talking honesty into a territory which even Corbyn has not dared to explore yet.

Firstly, it would mean being honest and straight-talking about the reality of the balance of forces in Austerity Britain, and indeed in Auserity Europe. Let’s be clear here. Syriza has been defeated, even if they are still standing. Podemos got about 20% of the vote: a breakthrough, but not the democratic revolution that many of us were hoping for. Closer to home, the SNP victory was glorious in Scotland, but it is also one of the factors which terrified Middle England into electing a Tory government in May 2015, and the gradual detachment of socialist Scotland from the United Kingdom does nothing to help the beleaguered English left. The metropolitan left is back on the political map in England, but it has no better idea than it did in 1983 on how to move from a position of marginality to one of political potency. Under these circumstances, there is one thing that any honest, straight talking politician will say to their followers: we are in this for a long haul, or we are not in it at all.

This is what the Bennites could have said in the early 80s, but never quite did: “We have a movement to build. In the process, we may lose the next two or three elections. As long as our enemies control the media , dominate workplaces and determine the nature of so many community  institutions, they will always be able to frighten enough of the electorate into voting against us to prevent us from winning an election. They will only allow us to come close to winning office if we simply remove all radical demands from our programme. We could do that – we could make ourselves ‘electable’ by becoming  so ‘moderate’  that the existing elites they would be willing to let us form a government for a while. But to achieve that, we would have to abandon much of our support amongst the poorest sections of society, and would demoralise our own forces to the point where we would have lost more than we had gained. We might get into office, but all real power would remain in the hands of our enemies, and we would have lot the opportunity to build a real movement for social change. We have to build our forces across culture and in civil society, in order to take our positions and deepen our networks, and in order to fight what Gramsci calls the ‘war of position.’ We have to develop our own institutions, our intellectual networks, and above all our own media. Only then will we be in a position to form a government. This may take a decade – it may take a generation – but it is the only path open to us.”

They could have said that. If they had, then a lot more people might have listened to them. But they didn’t. They would talk vaguely about the need to build movements and stick to principles, but they would never acknowledge that they were probably going to lose the next election on the way to achieving their goals. As a result, they sounded more like millenarian prophets than effective political strategists. And it was for this reason as much as any other that their natural allies, the soft left, drifted into two decades of uneasy complicity with the Blairites. Of course, the past is no necessary guide to the future, and there is no certainty that a Corbyn-led Labour party cannot win the next UK general election (which is more than 4 years away). But an effective political strategy would at least have to be open, straight-talking and honest about the fact that right now victory in the short term doesn’t look likely, and that the recognition of this fact requires some kind of strategy: whatever that strategy may be.

What might be an example of such a strategy? Let’s consider one key issue. Any project to build a radical consensus in the UK would have to take account of the widespread endorsement of demonstrably false beliefs about the economic costs of immigration and the extent of welfare dependency in the country today, which I already mentioned. There is no doubt that Corbyn and his policy team will put forward the most radical and progressive set of policy proposals on these issues that any major party has advanced since the 1980s. The question is whether they will also acknowledge that simply having those policies is worthless without a plan to persuade the country to back them, and that however well formulated those policies may be, their opponents are in a position to put up major obstacles to them ever winning majority support. What might be a way out of such a dilemma? There may be many possible routes. One that I would suggest would be the following: instead of simply announcing a policy, announce an intention to facilitate a 2-year process of extensive nationwide, community-level democratic deliberation, leading up to a final referendum to resolve some key questions on immigration and welfare policy. Be upfront about the fact that the extent of public misinformation on these issues makes it impossible simply to propose a policy, and that instead, a national conversation, a plan to let the people decide, will themselves be the policy put forward in the manifesto. Let democracy be the strategy. This is only one possible example of an answer to the intractable question of strategy, and my point here is not to propose a particular answer to that question. From my perspective, the fundamental problem with Corbynism as it is currently constituted is not the differing answers which it might give: rather the problem is it that, like Bennism before it, Corbynism currently seems unwilling to ask the question of Labour’s strategy at all.

The other key issue about which an effective Corbynism would have to be honest and straight-talking is the breakdown of the British party system. Arguably, since the late 1980s it has been clear that there is no future prospect of a Labour government simply achieving a parliamentary majority and proceeding to implement a radical progressive programme. The existence of a substantial centrist vote from the mid-80s onwards created a situation in which Labour always had only two strategic options. On the one hand, it could have accepted the inevitable necessity of coalition, and become the leading element of a left-of-centre coalition with the liberal democrats, committed to implementing Proportional Representation and a broad social democratic alternative to Thatcherism. This was the path urged on Labour by many soft left commentators in the late 80s. On the other hand, the only alternative route was the one that it eventually took – Labour rebranding itself as a centre party which outflanked the Liberal Democrats to the right on many social, political and economic issues. This was the New Labour project in a nutshell.

As explained above, the recent self-destruction of the Liberal Democrats has not improved the situation for Labour at all, and has only intensified the obvious non-representativeness of the British electoral system. Today only a radical reform of the electoral system could give an adequate expression to the complex distribution of opinion across contemporary British society (an example of which would be the shared commitment of the soft left, Blairites, Bennites, liberal democrats and pro-EU Tories to a set of cosmopolitan values which are rejected by UKIP, Tory Eurosceptics, and the old Labour right). Under these circumstances, my own judgement is that it is more or less inevitable that at some point in the foreseeable future, a broad coalition of parties – probably including both Labour and UKIP – will have to fight an election on a joint slate committed to introducing proportional representation immediately. This may happen in 2020 and it may happen in 2040, but it is the only foreseeable way in which proportional representation will be introduced and some kind of representative legitimacy restored to the UK constitution.

We should be clear about two things here. One is that the crisis of representative democracy is by no means local to the UK and its particularly decrepit constitution. Such a crisis is a global phenomenon, typical of the era of “post-democracy” and a direct consequence of neoliberal hegemony. I have argued elsewhere, extensively, that only a return to the classical radical democratic agenda of the New Left, advocating for participatory democracy in government, and for the democratisation of public services and workplaces, can really meet the challenges posed to democrats by the complexities of 21st century culture.24 Introducing proportional representation to the House of Commons would hardly constitute a panacea for British democracy or the English left. But it would nonetheless be an absolutely necessary step. The problem here is twofold: neoliberalism and the very experience of postmodernity25 have weakened and revealed the inherent limits of all forms of representative democracy; but democracy in Britain is not even weakly representative in the way that most European democracies are.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Corbyn has not thus far demonstrated the indifference to democratic questions of which the Bennites have historically been accused. In fact, he has made it party policy to try to set up an autonomous, nationwide constitutional convention to examine the health of the country’s democracy in every possible aspect, and has handed responsibility for this task to one of the most radical and intellectually expansive MPs in the House of Commons, Jon Trickett. Trickett has made clear that not just proportional representation, but a radical rethinking of British democracy in the 21st century, will be on the agenda. So the question, again, is not one of policy and programme, but of political strategy. If the constitutional convention recommends proportional representation, would a Corbyn-led Labour party go so far as to enter into an electoral pact which would include not just the Greens or even the SNP (both natural ideological allies), but also the most under-represented party ever to contest a British election, UKIP? Would they begin to prepare for the inevitable consequence of proportional representation – the breakup of the Labour Party’s unwieldy coalition into at least two separate parties? Will they, in short, be honest with themselves about the fact that the story of Corbynism as a socio-political phenomenon is not merely about the return of the Labour Left, but is a part of the much bigger story of the transformation of the 20th century party system beyond all recognition? Only time will tell. But I fear that if the answer is “no,” then the chances are that the country will remain largely where it is now, governed by unaccountable elites nominally representing the Labour or Conservative parties, but ultimately representing nothing but the interests of finance capital.

Of course, any such strategy would also have to have a complex class dimension. I’ve suggested elsewhere that the contemporary left must re-think the class alliances on which it could base itself, and in particular the potentially progressive role of key sections of the entrepreneurial classes.26 But history suggests that it will be far easier to persuade the Labour leadership to take that kind of argument seriously than to get them to accept that the Labour Party must let go of the singular political strategy which has defined its politics for over a century: seek an exclusive parliamentary majority, and assume that from there, all else will follow. The great fear of many of us today is that this is a strategy which can never work, but also one from which Labour can never free itself. Our great hope is that the pluralist, anti-sectarian and radically democratic instincts being demonstrated by Corbyn’s young supporters, especially in the process of constituting the Momentum organisation, suggests that a pluralistic and radically democratic politics may yet have a future in the UK, a future that is much brighter than its past.

The Future in Europe

Finally, given that so may of the issues now facing the British left are international in scope and scale, what about the hopes for a pan-European resistance to neoliberalism, as called for by voices on the left such as Yanis Varoufakis and Pablo Iglesias? The coming referendum on Britain’s EU membership makes this a seemingly urgent issue: can there be an effective left response?

I’m afraid, while not normally inclined to pessimism, I can only honestly answer “no.” Given the history of the past 12 months, especially in Greece, there is every reason for radical leftists to argue for a speedy exit from the EU. Unfortunately, anti-EU sentiment in the UK has been entirely hegemonised by the Right for over a generation, and there is no question that a victory for the “out” campaign would be experienced almost universally as a massive victory and morale-boost for the populist right. Most importantly, there is no question that the anti-EU campaign will make immigration its central issue, promising draconian restrictions as the immediate reward for exit. The referendum is likely to effectively become a test of how much weight the anti-immigration narrative can bear in popular political discourse.27 Progressive anti-EU rhetoric, which condemns the EU for its commitment to neoliberalism, has been a striking feature of public culture in countries such as France; it is not an active element of UK political culture at all, existing only  hypothetically in exclusively leftist circles. This is why most of the active Left in the UK are likely to line up behind some kind of “progressive yes” campaign, committed to the continued UK membership of the EU, but explicitly hostile to the Schäuble agenda. Unfortunately, the mechanisms by which such hostility could be translated into any kind of direct influence over EU policy are simply non-existent. This is what post-democracy looks like.

This would change, of course, were a Corbyn-led government actually to take office. Under such circumstances, there is no question that the entire balance of forces within the EU would be significantly, and perhaps permanently, altered. There is little doubt, for example, that such a government would press for immediate renegotiation of the Greek bailout. Corbyn and his team have made very clear that a Labour party led by them should be seen as closer to Syriza, Podemos and Die Linke than to Pasok, the PSOE, or the SPD.

At the same time, it is worth understanding that an absolute commitment to cosmopolitan values, to anti-racism, and to a hospitable immigration policy is one of the few points of principle which the metropolitan left shares with the Blairites. Indeed, it was the Conservative opposition’s ugly support for immigration restrictions, and its coded endorsement of anti-refugee sentiments, which did much to shore up support for Blair amongst the metropolitan left – and the soft left of the party – during the early years of his premiership. As for the Bennites in the party, this is an issue, like renewal of Trident, which they would probably rather lose an election and lose control of the party than compromise over.

As such, a hypothetical Corbyn-led government would be very likely to push for a generous and humane immigration policy across Europe, and a wider re-orientation of the EU away from uncompromising neoliberalism, were it ever to get the chance to do so. On the other hand, as I have explained, its commitment to a cosmopolitan immigration policy could well be the ultimate obstacle to such a government winning the support of the wider British public. What the conditions of possibility might be for such a better outcome, I hope I have helped the reader to judge for themselves.

Of course, there is one possible development in the near future which would enormously shorten the odds of Corbyn leading a future Labour government. Since the 1930s, no Labour government has been elected from opposition while a Republican was in the White House – except at the very height of global radicalisation, in 1974 (an exceptional moment in both countries for many reasons). Certainly no broader turn to the left in UK electoral politics has occurred which was not preceded by one in the United States: this is true of the Labour governments elected in 1945, 1964 and 1997. Perhaps this is because these electoral outcomes are merely epiphenomena of underlying shifts in international class relations. Perhaps it is because the floating voters of Middle England are, consciously or otherwise, likely to be impressed and influenced by what happens in the world’s leading power. Either way, it is very probable that a Bernie Sanders presidency – or even a Clinton administration which had been pushed to the left by Sanders’ insurgency – would make a Jeremy Corbyn premiership look and feel far more likely and far less dangerous to the English electorate, and would quite likely frighten a significant section of the press into backing down from their relentless anti-Corbynism. As has been the case for so long now, it may well be what happens in the electoral college of the United States that ultimately determines the fate of the European “democracies.”

Thanks to Anthony Barnet, Michel Feher, and Jo Littler for editorial input. 

Further reading



Recommended citation: Gilbert, Jeremy. “Corbynism and Its Future.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Podemos and the Challenges of Political Change in Spain

The political effects produced by the economic recession have had explosive consequences in the countries of southern Europe. They have transformed what appeared to be, at the beginning of the century, an amiable and non–conflictual postmodern depoliticization process into a great legitimization crisis. In Spain particularly, a bipartisan model that once seemed unchangeable has now been fractured. The December 2005 elections have solidified the break with the preceding consensus. It has opened up possibilities for changes that up until now were considered unimaginable.

For thirty years, the Spanish political system was characterized by great stability predicated on the hegemony and alternating victories of its two largest parties: the Socialist Party and the People’s Party. Together, they accounted for 80% of the vote. The ideological difference between the two parties was somewhat artificial since their programs coincided in some key elements. In particular, the two converged in their allegiance to economic orthodoxy, which involved the containment of public expenditure, the deregulation of the labor market, and severe limitations on redistributive politics. The legitimacy of the bipartisan system came from a growing economy that offered promises of upward social mobility, and had the European Union as its model of progress and modernization. However, this rosy picture was, to a large extent, just a mirage. The levels of unemployment, precarity, and inequality were particularly high, and the welfare state did little to redistribute the wealth. Yet, for a while, the semblance of prosperity constituted an effective source of social cohesion.

The economic crisis has precipitated the demise of this consensual assumption. The dream nurtured by the housing boom has turned into a speculative nightmare, characterized by unemployment, poverty and foreclosures. The innumerable cases of political corruption are perceived by the citizenry as a symptom of a profound institutional crisis that has been induced by the collusion between the economic and the political elite. The horizon of progress that the European Union once represented has lost its appeal as the EU’s complicity with austerity politics, and its incapacity to offer real solutions has become clear.

Widespread discontent came to light in the Spring of 2011 with the emergence of the 15M (the Indignados movement) and the ensuing cycle of social movements: massive demonstrations, protests regarding home foreclosures, large heterogeneous rallies named “tides” (mareas) committed to the defense of public services, etc. This was a period characterized by effervescence and fleetingness. Although it contributed decisively to molding a “common sense” for the interpretation of the crisis and its effects, it scarcely crystallized into lasting organizational forms, and thus, was not able to hold back the spending cuts decided on by the conservative government.

This impasse was overcome with the advent of Podemos in January 2014. In only a few months, and with barely any resources, the party led by Pablo Iglesias shook up the electoral landscape by gaining 8% of the vote in the European elections, thereby sending five deputies to the European parliament. However, what was perhaps the new party’s most impressive feat was not the electoral results, but the sense that a new path had been opened, one that could break with the social, ideological and symbolic limitations of the traditional left. Podemos appeared as an effective tool for expressing generalized discontent, for brokering an electoral alliance among diverse social groups, and for promoting institutional change. The victory of Syriza in the Greek legislative elections of January 2015 reinforced this idea and created a favorable international environment, with the prospect of forging international alliances within the European Union.

The elections of last December (2015) have consolidated the power of Podemos: the young party got 20% of the vote, and surpassed the Socialist Party (which obtained 22% nationally) in eight regions. By virtue of throwing a wrench into the two-party system, Podemos has also created an uncertain scenario that is likely to sustain the possibility of political change. The December elections thus bring to a close a dizzying electoral cycle that lasted for a year and half, and successively included European, local and regional elections. During that period, Podemos has had to – in the words of Iñigo Errejón, one of its founders – “run and tie its shoes at the same time.” The party engaged in several electoral campaigns without losing sight of the general elections – which it saw as its main objective while simultaneously, it had to create ex nihilo its own internal structure and elaborate a political program.

Pablo Iglesias and Podemos political party members celebrate elction results with raised fists
Podemos party members, including the leader Pablo Iglesias, celebrate the results of the general elections in Madrid, Spain, December 20, 2015. (Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images)

Moreover, while building itself up, Podemos has had to overcome conflicts related to its internal pluralism and its external alliances; it has been obliged to react to the advent of Ciudadanos – a center-right populist alternative to the two-party system that has been crossing its path. Lastly, Podemos has had to deal with the blow of Syriza’s defeat in July 2015 after six months of confron-tation with the European Union. Despite all these challenges, the results have been remarkable. In the local elections Podemos, in coalitions formed with “the citizen platforms,” won the three largest cities in Spain – Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia – which together make up more than 10% of the country’s population. In the general elections, the party has established itself as the third largest parliamentarian force, hot on the heels of the Socialist Party that is now facing a serious internal crisis.

1 — The Dilemmas and Limitations of Podemos and Other Forces of Change

Podemos’ success and the fascination that it has exercised certainly contrast with the criticisms that it has received from leftist intellectuals and activists since its founding. From the start, Podemos was accused of “dividing the left” and of “putting the cart before the horse” in chasing votes for elections. Early on, it was attacked for “betraying its original spirit” (and that of the 15M Movement) and for “turning its back on the social movements.” Regardless of what one thinks about these and other criticisms – whether they are deemed honest or self–serving, accurate or deceptive – what is certain is that they reflect a permanent tension within the left that is exacerbated by the electoral scene and its competition. The likelihood is that these controversies will reappear decisively within the context of the debates about the steps that Podemos must now take.

The majority of the analyses of Podemos tend to describe its development as the result of the tension between two opposing political strategies. The supporters of each strategy mutually castigate the other camp for the party’s defeats while praising themselves for its successes.

On one side, there is the “Machiavellian” strategy of Podemos’s leadership. Its promoters are Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, who model their approach on the experiences of the neo-populist governments of Latin America. Basically, they propose to delegitimize the Spanish political system by an “Overton window” that purports to redefine the inherited ideological categories and to propose “constituent” alternatives. In their view, the political discourses of the past need to be overcome – especially the axis of left-right politics, but also the self-referential proclivities of the left – while a new transversal political subject, with whom a majority of constituents could identify, must be forged. In the words of Errejón, the task at hand involves “constructing a people” capable of initiating a hegemonic political project. This strategy would justify the creation of an efficient and hierarchical party – an “electoral war machine” – capable of becoming a commanding force before the window of political opportunity is closed shut. To that end, Iglesias and Errejón argue, it is necessary to privilege those consensual discourses capable of rallying people for the project of change, even at the expense of the deepening of internal democracy within Podemos, and to prioritize the use of media apparatus such as the television throughout the process.

On the other side, there is the “movementist”’ strategy, whose proponents reproach the leaders of Podemos for their lack of democratic commitment, and demand both more horizontal relations within the party itself and closer relations with social movements. The supporters of this position accuse Podemos of having betrayed the spirit of the 15M by turning it into a conventional political party. Until recently, they also attributed Podemos’ temporary loss of support among potential voters to this development (the party’s rapid increase of popularity in the polls was indeed reversed over the course of 2015, but began to rise again during the electoral campaign).What “movementists” propose instead is an alternative strategy based on opening up Podemos to the social movements as a way of advancing its project beyond the present limits. The most evident crystallization of the movementist strategy was Ahora en Común, a platform that did not so much aspire to forge a coalition with the lefts – something that Podemos has agreed to in Cataluña, Valencia and Galicia – as to “overwhelm” the bureaucratic structures of Podemos from a grassroot level.

The conflict between these two lines is somewhat misleading. Notwithstanding the errors of judgment that the representatives of either faction may have committed, or the secret agendas that they may harbor, it is clear that both strategies are faced with objective limits that have hampered their development and are condemned to coexist in the foreseeable future – while it is true that the “Machiavellian” line has achieved an undeniable electoral success thus far.

1.1  – What Popular Movements?

The references to social movements, in the Spanish context, have much to do with wishful thinking. The cycle of activism that started in 2011 has led neither to the coalescence of organizational structures, nor to a substantial empowerment of the popular classes. The best kept secret of the recent wave of mobilizations – defined by the rhetoric of the 99%, the people and the commons – is that behind the appeals to the “movement,” the actual protagonists are often just a small minority of very active militants.

Moreover, a considerable portion of these activists possesses substantial social capital, comes from the middle class and thus have the means to engage in politics that others don’t have. The new political cycle has enabled them to rise from the small militant circles to which they were hitherto confined and become real protagonists. However, it would be completely misleading to confuse the promotion of these activists with a process of democratization, or with the advent of popular power.

Another important point is that charismatic leadership has played a fundamental role in all of the recent successful political processes. The “movementist faction” tends to argue that the conquest of the mayor’s office in Barcelona and Madrid prove the efficiency of their “horizontal” strategy. Yet they thereby conveniently forget the enormous charisma of Ada Colau, who was already well known thanks to her television appearances as the spokesperson of the PAH (“Platform for People Affected by Mortgages”), or Manuela Carmena, a progressive judge with a prolix career and notorious record.

1.2  – “We are the 99%?”

The main limitation of the populist strategy spearheaded by the “official” leadership of Podemos is that its harbingers tend to forget that the wager upon which it is predicated proved successful in the context of deeply polarized Latin-American societies, where the distinction between the interests of those at the top and those at the bottom was a clear mobilizing force. Spain, however, has a more complex social structure. In the last thirty years a political and social group that together brings in over 30% of the national income has been acquiring a considerable political importance. Its interests and issues are over-represented in the programs of the political parties, in the media, and in public policy. This has led to a situation where groups with lower income and less social capital identify with this section of the population and thus aspire to a middle class status.

Podemos supporters holding banners at political rally in Madrid
Supporters of Podemos hold up banners during a political rally in Madrid, January 31, 2015 (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Neither the 15M, the “tidal” rallies (mareas), nor Podemos has been able to break this dynamic and mobilize those at the (very) bottom. This is paradoxical because those are the groups that are truly, and intensely, suffering the material effects of the crisis. In fact, it is the families who were already in bad shape before 2008 who are suffering most from the effects of the economic downturn.

The indignation of the middle classes is largely based on what could be called an “existential” suffering. That is to say, on the disappointment of their expectations of upward social mobility, and the non-fulfillment of inherited social promises. It is very likely that these groups are going to suffer a serious worsening of their living conditions; yet, this will be a medium-term process. The PP (“People’s Party”) government has been intelligent enough to opt for a slow dismantling of social services. Its efforts have been concentrated on the flexibility of the labor market and the destruction of the means of collective bargaining. It is an indirect way of reducing the system of social protections that in Spain is based on career paths (for example, today’s youth will have a hard time with their pensions). It is, however, a gradual process and, for that reason, does not induce much activist outrage. By contrast, the material suffering of the lower classes should be a much more potent engine for change than the existential malaise of the middle classes; it would be much more difficult to manage for the elite, and could generate durable and shared identities. However, those social groups have been virtually absent from the mobilizations of the last few years.

1.3  – The Disappearance of Class

The cause of the shortcomings described above is, in reality, related to the political decline of the working class in the context of an anemic civil society. Contrary to what happened in Greece during the same period, the Spanish unions have played a minor role in the resistance against the existing austerity measures. Additionally, Spain has one of the lowest rates of union membership in the OECD countries, and the unions, which had played a strong role in the first wave of struggles against neoliberalism in the eighties, have disappeared as important political actors. The result has been that the 15M and Podemos have been shut out of the major workplaces and have thus been unable to forge a class identity based on shared precarization – one that would transcend the micro-identities predicated on social and cultural capital. There are no organizational instruments from which to articulate a process of empowerment for the subaltern classes, and the role of class in the current electoral cycle has been altogether minimal.

In its discourse and its practice, Podemos, like the other political organizations of the left, has been faced with an uncomfortable dilemma. On the one hand, the electoral urgencies have prevented its representatives from finding some way of intervening in the world of labor. But on the other hand, the identification with the “middle class” is so hegemonic that to renounce it in their discourse would be electorally unwise. Yet, this dynamic tends to reinforce the invisibility of the lower classes.

2  – The Elite’s Counterattack

While the forces of change grapple with these problems, the Spanish economic and political elite has not remained passive and has elaborated an ambitious strategy that aspires to bring the ongoing political crisis to a close and to do so “from above.” This is not a homogenous political phenomenon. The subjects of this process are diverse and there are conflicts among them which, to an extent, cause them to compete with each other for the same political space. At the same time, they share loyalties and find points of equilibrium between their divergent interests. The three main elements of the elite’s counterattack have been the economic recovery, (however timid) the advent of Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), and the conflict in Catalonia.

2.1  – The Economic Recovery

Spain is experiencing a simulacrum of economic recovery based on the deregulation of the labor market and the absence of new financial turbulences. In the last two years there have been fragile improvements with respect to hiring, but at the cost of widespread precarization, a lowering of wages, and far fewer work hours. Some groups are completely excluded from the labor market, such as the unemployed over the age of 45 and those who are younger than 25 years old. On the other hand, and thanks to the strong support from the European Union and the European Central Bank (ECB), Spain’s situation in the bond markets seems to have improved. The financial crisis of 2008 no longer appears in the media, while the government has been able to produce an image of macroeconomic stability. The reality, however, is that the Spanish public debt is the highest in its history. It amounts to 94% of GDP, and reimbursement is basically impossible. Even so, the sense of an economic recovery has made its way (differentially, of course) to the social groups that have the greatest role in the media and in politics, and it has found a manifest expression with the slightly rising indicators of consumption.

2.2  – Agent Orange

The main political turning point of 2015 has been the emergence of a new political actor on the center-right, Ciudadanos, which has further fragmented the political landscape. With a transversal discourse (that is, neither left nor right), and similar in form to some aspects of Podemos, Ciudadanos defends a political program of institutional regeneration, yet without any modification regarding macroeconomic policies and the involvement of the State. This project of renovation earned Ciudadanos the label of “Podemos of the right”: a technocratic yet populist alternative that shares some essential programmatic features with the PP and the PSOE, yet doesn’t have to deal with the historical strains which overburden traditional parties. Despite the support of the mass media and of other “powers that be,” Ciudadanos’ performance in the December elections (13%) was below the expectations created by the polls. Nonetheless, with their promise of a “sensible and peaceful change” – something like a return to the financial bubble years, but without the corruption and turbulence, thanks to trustworthy administrators – they have managed to slow down the growth of Podemos, amid the loss of support faced by the People’s Party, by way of providing another outlet for the indignation of the middle class.

2.3  – The Catalonian Puzzle

The Catalonian case is a peculiar one. In Catalonia, the popularity of the independence movement has been very much on the rise in recent years, becoming the fundamental expression of dissatisfaction with the Spanish political regime. The paradox of the sovereigntist project is that, despite having undeniably deep popular roots and an openly anti-capitalist wing, it still largely operates under the guidance of the Catalonian elite.

The pro-independence yet conservative party that was hegemonic for several decades in Catalonia (Convergencia, the major partner of the Convergencia i Unió coalition) has engaged in aggressive spending cuts and has been mired in serious corruption scandals. Nevertheless, it has been able to reinvent itself as the bearer of the independence movement, and as the representative of a social block that is dominated by an elite characterized by strong social and cultural cohesion. In fact, the Catalonian process can be interpreted as a textbook case of “passive revolution,” namely, a project wherein the local bourgeoisie mobilizes identity to reinforce its power, thereby averting the systemic crisis of its own political project.

Insofar as the debate over independence gives center stage to the territorial conflict at the expense of other political debates, and points up the opposition between the extreme stances – either centralism or independence – it may end up benefiting the Spanish right. Yet, the opposite outcome is also possible. It is, for instance, possible that tensions may erupt to the point where it becomes obvious to most people – if it is not already the case – that the only sensible solution is to hold a referendum on independence, as is done in Canada or Scotland. Among the large parties, Podemos is currently the only one advocating this option.

3  – The Challenges Brought Forth by the Wave of Change

With the general elections held on December 20, a chapter in the process of political change in Spain has come to a close. If the 15M expressed in colorful fashion, and in the streets, the enormous discontent provoked by the crisis, Podemos subsequently revealed itself as an efficient electoral instrument, capable of shifting and articulating the social demands of the 15M into the arena of institutional politics.

Now begins a new phase. In the words of Gramsci, the process today is about moving from a “war of maneuver” to a “war of position.” The political landscape of the last year and a half has been punctuated by electoral campaigns calling for very centralized hierarchies, an urgent need for organizational cohesion, and a focus on television as the primary medium for disseminating political messages. However, in the medium-term it is difficult to imagine that a process of change could prosper without a movement that is rooted in civil society and without the active involvement of the popular classes. This requires other organizational forms and a repertoire of alternative actions. In sum, Podemos – and more generally, the wave of change that it rode – is faced with the following three challenges: the construction of a real party, the emergence of a popular movement, and the brokering of international alliances.

With regard to the first challenge, Podemos has so far balanced a rhetoric championing participatory democracy with the compromises and exigencies dictated by the electoral timetable. In just a few months, a political party needed to be quickly constructed, with scanty resources and in an environment of great hostility created by the mainstream media. Podemos could count on a large number of rank and file, who were enthusiastic yet lacked expertise and had no political culture in common. It also had to attract candidates who were prepared to run and remain loyal to the party, while at the same time, filtering out mere careerists. The effects of such a process are certainly debatable and have generated much controversy. However, what is clear is that there are many tasks and challenges ahead if what is to be constructed is an instrument that will prove not only capable of competing electorally, but also of adapting to the idiosyncrasies of different territories – a particularly important trait in a country as decentralized as Spain – in addition to accommodating a variety of political sensibilities – and all without putting into question the cohesion of the party or indulging in a destructive internecine factionalism.

Despite the importance and difficulty of these challenges, however, meeting them should not come at the expense of another and even more important task: the construction of a movement that is truly popular, and in which the preeminence of the so-called “activists” could be attenuated through the incorporation of those who were hit hardest by the crisis: the workers, the precariously employed, the migrants, etc. The objective of such a movement would not be so much to take it to the streets, as some discourses that tend to glorify demonstrations would lead us to believe, but to articulate an organized civil society that would oppose effective counter-powers to the devastating effects of the market. Obviously, a popular movement cannot be built with a master plan designed from above. The efflorescence of the social fabric is a function of spontaneous and, for that reason, unpredictable factors. However, it is up to organized political forces to accompany the process, while refraining from the temptation of instrumentalizing the movement. In this regard, the world of labor deserves greater attention, as it has been the unresolved issue of the current political cycle.

The third challenge pertains to the international arena. The recent experience of Syriza in Greece has once again exposed the democratic limits of the European Union, and emphasized the difficulties that any alternative will have to face. It is true that the size of the Spanish economy would hypothetically give an anti-Troika government a more advantageous position from which to renegotiate the debt. Having said that, however, without creating alliances in the rest of the continent, bringing such a negotiation to a successful outcome would prove extremely complicated. For that reason, the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn in the primaries of the British Labour Party, and the creation of a leftist government in Portugal – thanks to alliances between the Socialist Party, the left bloc (BE), and the Portuguese Communist Party – are auspicious news. In fact, symmetrically speaking, one may also wonder about what would happen to the hegemonic position of Germany in Europe if the sovereigntist extremeright were to win the elections in France.

To be sure, the future of the European Union is uncertain. Not only because the refugee crisis has caused European institutions to lose whatever credit they still had as a moral point of reference for its professed ideals, but also because the current European Monetary Union presiding over the Eurozone is clearly unsustainable. The alternative, however, is not clear either. This proved to be the case in Greece, and now also in Spain. Nevertheless, in the climate of crisis, and of accelerated political transformation that we are now experiencing, it is not impossible that the ascent of Podemos will help induce a counter–hegemonic process at the level of the continent: a grassroots Europeanism that would enable the popular classes to lead a democratization of European institutions.

Translated by Diego Arrocha

Recommended citation: Rendueles, César and Sola, Jorge. “Podemos and the Challenges of Political Change in Spain.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Occupational Options: The Political Trajectories of Social Movements in Southern Europe

Since the advent of the economic crisis in 2008, a myriad of social movements has emerged across Europe. These movements are generally concerned with specific issues and are representative of relatively narrow sections of their respective societies. At the same time, however, they are composed of activists with a considerable level of expertise. Among these movements, we can cite the “anti-eviction platform” in Spain, volunteer health clinics in Greece, and the collectives of “retirees against austerity” in Portugal. At a certain point in their development, a number of these movements decided to shift their energies into the electoral arena and shake up the political landscape of their respective countries. Others, however, have preferred to keep their distance from national institutions and the electoral process. How can we explain these different strategies? The following sections take stock of the various trajectories of these social movements across southern Europe.


The manifesto entitled Guanyem Barcelona (Catalan for “Let’s Win Barcelona”) was published in June 2014. It marked a decisive turn in Spanish political life even if, at the time, it received little coverage in the national media. As the municipal elections set for May 2015 approached, the first signatories – social activists, university professors, journalists – explained why they decided to extract themselves from the ranks of the social movements that had been developing since 2011 all across Spain, in order to enter the electoral arena: “The hour has come,” they wrote, “to reclaim the institutions so that they serve the majority of the people and the common good.” From Barcelona City Hall they hoped to orchestrate nothing less than a “democratic rebellion” that would serve as an example for Spain and Europe as a whole.

The text quickly gathered thousands of signatures. Its success attested to the accuracy of Ada Colau’s analysis. Colau was an important figure in social protests and initially gained recognition as the co-leader of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH: literally, “the platform for those affected by mortgages”), a campaign that aimed to block evictions. Colau was one of the architects of Guanyem. In order to justify her choice of joining the electoral fray, in October 2014 she explained to the French daily Mediapart that: “Democracy does not work. We have witnessed a very intense cycle of protests, starting with 15-M (the Indignados movement, which first appeared on May 15, 2011), the “tides” (sector-specific movements against budget cuts), and the PAH . . . Today, a majority of the population demands basic democratic guarantees [mínimos democráticos], but the institutions in place do not want to grant them. The institutions do not obey the public interest but rather the economic interests of the few.”

In June 2015, a year after the publication of the manifesto, Ada Colau won her bet. Riding the wave of success of Barcelona en Comú (“Barcelona in Common,” the new name of Guanyem), she became the mayor of Barcelona. The story of this Catalonian woman, born in 1974, is an example of the coming of age of the “Indignation” movement that spread throughout the public squares of Spain in 2011. Shaped by social movements, made legitimate by victories won with PAH alongside debtors facing eviction, she decided to build, with others, an alternative to the political parties that she considered outmoded. Her goal was to regenerate Spanish political life. At her side, she brought together members of Catalonian civil society (lawyers, university professors, journalists, etc.), representatives of various social movements (PAH, “tides,” members of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia, etc.), and also representatives of new political parties (including Podem, the Catalonian version of the anti-austerity movement Podemos) and more traditional parties (Initiative for Catalonia Greens, or ICV, for example). They all agreed to come together and put aside their respective party insignia.

Ada Colau’s address at a Podemos electoral meeting in Madrid in December 2015

Following Ada Colau’s example, dozens of well-known activists in Spain left their respective social movements and endeavored to take national institutions by (electoral) storm. Rafael Mayoral, a lawyer and another pillar of the PAH, became one of the main leaders of Podemos and is now a close advisor to the party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias. Thanks to transfusions such as these, the entire Spanish political landscape has been shaken up and renewed. Joan Subirats, an academic and a loyal supporter of Colau, has observed “a shift from an approach seeking to unseat those in power” (by means of social protests and denunciation) “to one that attempts to constitute something new” (namely, to “occupy” the institutions rather than the streets and squares). He calls the latter approach the “constituent hypothesis” of 15-M. This strategic shift is synonymous, in his eyes, with “an extension of the domain of democracy.” Some other activists however, were critical of this move; in a context of enduring social crisis, they worried that the shift would amount to a “desertion” of the streets and a weakening of the citizens’ counter-power which the social movements represented.

At the European level, Spain seems to be an isolated case. The so-called “constituent hypothesis” or “process,” which involves the continuous reinvention of the 15-M legacy, has few equivalents elsewhere on the continent. However, since the beginning of the sovereign debt crisis in 2010, social movements have gained in intensity nearly everywhere. Whether it is the volunteer health clinics in Greece, a campaign against the water tax in Ireland (Right2Water), the rallying of social centers in Italy against the labor law reform “jobs act” that is led by Matteo Renzi, or the movement of retirees against budget cuts in Portugal, the range of protests has grown wider across Europe. At the same time, however, very few of these movements have decided to change course and enter the electoral arena.

Given that most regions of southern Europe were subjected to similar austerity programs, and that inequalities had soared everywhere, what can explain the divergent strategies of European social movements? What conditions led moral entrepreneurs and activists, who at the outset of the 2008 crisis championed specific issues, to decide that it was necessary to forge common ground with other social movements and seek wide-ranging responses to their interlocked concerns? Guillem Vidal, a Spanish scholar who studies the political consequences of the “Great Recession” at the European University Institute in Florence, observes: “There are of course certain common features across the continent, especially in southern Europe: a growing mistrust of the traditional political parties, the harshness of the social crisis, etc. But the forms that the political and social responses took in the various countries differed greatly.”


One often forgets that Portugal was the first European country to develop an “indignant” movement. The manifesto of the Geração à rasca, the “generation left behind,” was published in March 2011, two months before the 15-M movement in Spain. From the beginning, the Portuguese precursor of the Indignados defined itself as “non-partisan, secular, and peaceful.” It opposed austerity measures and sought the renewal of political practices – especially in the realm of participatory democracy. Then, in the wake of the banks’ bailout plans, organized by international creditors and purported to keep Portugal from defaulting on its debt, the tenor of Geraçao a rasca changed; the movement declared  Que se lixe a troika! Queremos as nossas vidas! (“The Troika can go to hell! We want our lives!”); it gathered steam and culminated in a one million person strong demonstration on September 15, 2012. In other words, about 10% of the whole Portuguese population marched that day. Although this massive demonstration left a mark on the Portuguese people, it never led to the construction of a new political entity capable of competing electorally and thus of entering the realm of institutional politics.

Three years later, the campaign for the legislative elections of October 2015, saw the emergence of an ad hoc citizen platform called LIVRE/Tempo de Avançar (L/TDA) and comprised of “green” activists and left-libertarian militants. In terms of its political agenda and its mode of operation, L/TDA bore some resemblance to the hybrid coalitions of social movements and “old” parties that had proven successful in the May 2015 Spanish municipal elections. Initially, the Portuguese platform gathered together communist collectives, the descendants of 1970s Eurocommunism (such as the organization Fórum Manifesto), the militants of LIVRE, which were set up to enter the 2014 European elections, as well as several thousand citizens who were not affiliated with any party or organization but identified with the project of L/TDA.

15M protestors occupy street in Lisbon
An “indignant” protester holds a placard reading “We fight without fear” during a demonstration in downtown Lisbon on May 12, 2012 (Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images)

That L/TDA opted for a “horizontal” construction of its program – as opposed to a top down process controlled by the party’s leadership – and held open primaries (long before those organized by the Portuguese socialists). These practices, which are similar to the modus operandi of Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú, are proof that similar kinds of political experiments are circulating throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Professor Boaventura de Sousa, who has been involved with L/TDA, is a frequent guest on Pablo Iglesias’s web-TV show in Madrid. He is also a close associate of Xosé Manuel Beiras, a mentor of Iglesias and an inspirational figure for the so-called confluencia movement in the north-western Spanish region of Galicia. L/TDA’s horizontal practices and alliances resemble the intersectional approach to politics epitomized by Barcelona en Comú.

Organizational and intellectual similarities notwithstanding, however, L/TDA, contrary to its Spanish counterparts, turned out to be an electoral failure. The collective only managed to get 0.7% of the vote (even less than the 2.2% won by LIVRE in the 2014 European elections). Meanwhile, the institutional left (the three political forces that existed well before the crisis: the Socialist Party, the more left-leaning Bloco de Esquerda and the Communist Party) made important gains and, much to everyone’s surprise, was even able to form a “progressive” government. Rather than joining L/TDA, important figures in the Portuguese social movements found a place either on the Bloco’s list of candidates or even on that of the Socialist Party. This was the case for Maria do Rosário Gama, the president of APRe, one of the collectives fighting for the rights of retirees and against austerity; she was elected in Coimbra, in central Portugal, on a Socialist ticket.

How can we make sense of the contrast between the outcome of the elections in Portugal and in Spain – especially considering that before the vote, the Socialist Party was in the opposition, nationally, in Lisbon as well as in Madrid? “In addition to the social and economic problems borne out by several years of austerity, which are equally severe in both countries, in Spain, the political regime is also in a state of crisis, and that makes a big difference,” argues Rui Tavares, a former member of the European Parliament from Portugal (2004-2009) and one of the founders of LIVRE. “In Portugal, we don’t have the equivalent of the Catalonian question, which calls into question the institutions and the very identity of the country. To the contrary, in Portugal, everybody on the left, from the center-left to the communists, has always been proud of the 1975 Constitution, which came out of the Carnation Revolution, in particular because it has given a constitutional grounding for important economic and social rights.”

In Spain, on the other hand, the pro-independence movement in Catalonia, which has picked up a lot of steam since 2012, is often perceived as proof that the constitution of 1978, distinctive of the transition from the Franco regime to the Constitutional Monarchy (1975–1982), is in part obsolete. This fundamental law, which was adopted by consensus at the time, sealed the bipartisan system whereby the Partido Popular (right) and the PSOE (left) are meant to fill the political space. This balance, however, began to crumble with the blow of the financial crisis. The legislative elections of December 2015 further accelerated the decline of the post-Franco regime. The two newly created parties – Ciudadanos on the right and Podemos on the left – together received about 35% of the votes and called for a “second transition.”

The comparison of the two countries suggests that from the perspective of institutional change, Portugal is not at all in the same situation as Spain and nothing dramatic is likely to happen on that front in the foreseeable future. “Culturally, linguistically, and socially, Portugal is much more homogenous than Spain. In Spain, Catalonia and Galicia have a degree of autonomy that makes them prone to political experimentation, which in turn spreads to the rest of the country. There is also no Portuguese equivalent to the television channel La Sexta, which helped launch Podemos early on” observes Rui Tavares – whose own party, LIVRE, was largely ignored by the Portuguese media during the election campaign.

In Portugal, the Constitution was used as a tool in the struggle against austerity and in facing the Troika. In the summer of 2014, the Supreme Court ruled against austerity measures adopted by the Parliament because they were deemed unconstitutional. Similar rulings have occurred with some regularity. This instance transpired when the government decided to reduce the salaries of certain categories of civil servants by 12%. This fundamental law is even popular among the youngest generations, who were born after the Carnation Revolution.

Rui Tavares, however, refuses to speak of an L/TDA “defeat.” Although the platform proved unsuccessful in the voting booths, and it hardly met the objective of representing a social majority, Tavares believes that L/TDA’s campaign served to stir up the public debate. It forced a discussion on the key aspects of its agenda and compelled the traditional parties to amend their own. “It has always seemed clear to us that the majority in Portugal leans to the left, and we were the first to speak about the need for the different ‘lefts’ to converge, at a time – at the beginning of the campaign – when no traditional party wanted to talk or even think about any type of alliance,” he insists. “The social movements, on the one hand, and the political parties on the other, function in different ways, which is something that one must respect,” he continues. “For us, it seemed more coherent, more transparent, to say: here are the causes we support, and here is the ideological space which we consider under-represented in Portugal and we want to occupy; now it’s up to you to see if this appeals to you.”


At first glance, the political landscape in Greece has more in common with the Spanish than with the Portuguese experience. Common features include the deterioration of the bipartisan system in which the PASOK, the Socialist party, and the conservative party New Democracy are alternatively in power; the destruction of the social fabric wrought by corruption scandals and cronyism; the implementation of neoliberal policies leading to greater inequalities, and – in a much more pronounced way than in Spain – the exhaustion of the social-democratic party whose supporters have been siphoned off by the new party Syriza, which is further to the left than PASOK. However, these similar ingredients produced a markedly different outcome, namely the three historic victories of Syriza at the polls – in January, July, and September 2015. For their part, the Greek social movements, while undeniably very present throughout the recent period – sometimes spectacularly so – never tried to have a direct impact on the electoral process. Syriza’s ability to adapt and to welcome the movements’ agendas in its own program proved decisive in that respect.

“In Spain, since 2011, the prominent role played by new actors is evident. It all began with the appearance, out of nowhere, of a collective named Democracia Real YA! (A Real Democracy Now! – one of the Indignados collectives). The collective was created by activists who didn’t belong to any organization or political party up until that point and who rejected institutional politics altogether. Greece also had a strong “indignant” movement, as well as many protests and strikes, but the role of traditional institutional actors remained important,” observes Guillem Vidal; for the Spanish scholar, “this can be explained by the fact that ‘the enemy’ was not exactly the same in the two countries. In Greece, the enemy primarily came from outside: he had the face of the ‘men in black’ of the Troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. In Spain, on the other hand, the various strands of the 15-M movement always focused on problems, such as  corruption, that were internal to the Spanish democratic system.”

Contrary to Greece, Ireland, or Portugal, early in 2013, Spain managed to avoid, at the last minute, a bailout plan imposed by the Troika. Although the denunciation of EU austerity programs has been one of the main resources of “indignation” movements since the beginning of the 15-M, from that point on, the fight against domestic corruption and for the renewal of democratic practice at the national level has emerged at the forefront of the agenda. Pablo Iglesias, the head of Podemos, who was a European deputy in Strasbourg for a year, regularly denounced German hegemony in Europe. However, he has remained favorable to the euro and has made regular appeals for an inflection of the ECB’s monetary policies. He has also supported, at every turn, his ally Alexis Tsipras–even after Tsipras signed the Third Memorandum of Understanding with Greece’s creditors and accepted a mandate that forces the Syriza government to pursue the program of budget cuts and privatization initiated by its conservative predecessor.

In Greece, much more than in Spain, the EU and to a lesser extent Germany under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, were the main targets of the protests. One can roughly identify three stages in the chronology of the Greek movements. First, there was the December 2008 protest that followed the death of a 15 year old student by a policeman in Athens. The protest was a general expression of outrage and although it had no particular message, it was underwritten by the youths’ frustration with the cronyism of the political class. At the time, all political parties, including the communist KKE, distanced themselves from the violence that accompanied the protest. Only a budding party at the time, “Syriza was the only political force in Greece that showed a sincere understanding of the movement, which, at the time, seemed to have cost them some percentage points in the polls,” recalls Gerassimon Moschonas, Professor of Political Science at Athens’s Panteion University. (Moschonas observes some similarities between this protest and some elements of the 2005 “riots” in the French suburbs).

Greek leftist youths march at demonstration
Greek leftist youths march during a demonstration calling for an exit from the eurozone and a “No” vote in the upcoming referendum in Athens, June 28, 2015. (Angeliki Panagiotou/Demotix/Corbis)

Then in 2011, the “indignant” movement took over public squares in Greece, and particularly, Syntagma Square in Athens. Starting in 2012, a succession of general strikes against the measures dictated by the Troika followed. This second phase thus involved more traditional types of mobilization and was largely orchestrated by the sizeable Greek trade unions. Parallel to these developments, there appeared a number of solidarity networks. The first was that of the free health clinics, which purported to make up for the social and political desertion of the Greek welfare state. “In the Greek case,” Moschonas notes, “what is surprising is that no figure capable of representing these thriving social movements managed to emerge.” This set the stage for Syriza, which was built on the ruins of the old leftist parties in 2004, to become the main opposition party. In 2013 Syriza was reconfigured through a big party conference (where it adopted the name Syriza-EKM for “United Social Front”) and succeeded in striking a delicate balance: it established a kind of virtuous coexistence with the social movements, without ever trying to exploit them. It created an informal alliance with the grassroots activists without ever going so far as to absorb them into the party apparatus.

The electoral victory of Réna Doúrou, who became governor of Athens in September 2014, was a turning point in Syriza’s rise to power – and the inaugural moment of the third stage in the recent history of Greek social movements. Doúrou’s success, similar to that of Ada Colau and the PAH in Spain, proved to skeptics that Syriza was capable of further political success. The PAH first started with stopping eviction and helping indebted families get off the streets; it proved that it could win elections and bring change to people’s daily lives, and consequently helped restore the faith of thousands of disillusioned Spanish citizens in politics. Similarly, Réna Doúrou’s victory in Athens served as the local groundwork and the inspiration of Syriza’s national campaigns and victories the following year.

In contrast to the crisis of the political regime in Spain, in Greece, as in Portugal, there was no question of changing the Constitution (the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn are the only group to have demanded such a thing). Another element that contributes to the Greek institutional continuity – despite the chaos in Athens – is the comparatively shorter history of authoritarianism and longer history of parliamentary tradition. The Greek dictatorship lasted seven years (1967–1974) whereas the authoritarian regimes in Spain and Portugal went on for much longer. Greece is one of the first countries to establish universal male suffrage (beginning in 1864) and celebrates a long parliamentary tradition that remains lively to this day.


Surprisingly, it is in Italy that the dynamic of Spanish movements finds its closest kin. “People emerging from social movements and moving into alternative local governments is something we saw happen at the end of the 1990s, alongside the anti-globalization movement. In a sense, it was a precursor to what is happening in Spain today,” says Beppe Caccia. The Italian activist spent seventeen years on the Venice City Council, at first as an affiliate of the Green Party SEL, and then since 2010, as a candidate of the leftist independent group Venice in Common (which of course calls to mind Barcelona en Comú).

While there was no “indignant” movement in Italy, the country has been the scene of numerous political mobilizations since 2008. The height of this wave of activism coincided with the triple referendum of June 2011: the electorate was to rule, at the same time, on Silvio Berlusconi’s immunity from prosecution, on going back to nuclear energy, and on the privatization of water resources. The last measure was the focal point of the protests. A few weeks before the referendum, local elections translated the momentum created by social movements into victories for several citizens’ candidates who were, in some instances, supported by the leftist environmentalists of SEL. The victories included the mayors’ seat in Naples and Milan. The former was won by Judge de Luigi Magistris and the latter by Giuliano Pisapia, a lawyer who had worked on the case concerning the death of Carlo Giuliani, the activist killed by the police during the G8 meeting in Genoa in 2001.

“We all share the idea that city government and local executive power are an appropriate site from which to lead an efficient fight against the austerity programs imposed by European institutions,” suggests Beppe Caccia. He is part of Blockupy, a collective that combines NGOs, labor unions and political parties from all over Europe and takes action against the EU’s economic policies. “That said, what we did in Venice in the 2000s was to join larger coalitions still dominated by the traditional center-left, namely the Democratic Party.” The Democratic Party (PD) led by Matteo Renzi is currently in power; its Venice section was badly shaken by a huge corruption scandal in 2014. Referencing the coalitions that are on the rise in Turin, Bologna was in the lead up to the June 2016 municipal elections. “Turin in Common” and Coalizione Civica per Bologna (“Civic Coalition for Bologna”), Caccia suggests: “What we are seeing in Spain, on the other hand, and which also seems to be brewing in many cities in Italy, are more radical experiments, involving a clean break with Matteo Renzi and the PD’s strategy.” Along the lines of the Catalonian model, the initiatives in Turin and Bologna combine alternative social movements, such as the so-called “social centers,” and the “old” political parties together around a strong local figure.

Activists wearing rainbow masks barricade italian bank
Activists of the Autonomous Social Center Movements of North Eastern Italy barricade the Venetian headquarters of the Bank of Italy on March 2, 2015. (Marco Secchi/Getty Images)

Guillem Vidal, of the European University Institute in Florence, remains cautious as to the possibility of transposing the successes seen in Spanish local elections to the June 2016 elections in Italy. “Barcelona en Comú was created at a very auspicious moment, and was able to ride the wave of 15-M. But there has been no such visible and radical movement in Italy. It will not be easy for the Italian platforms such as those in Torino and Bologna to gather the same momentum as their Barcelona and Madrid models,” he predicts. In short, the powerful matrix of 15-M is still the key to understanding the specificity of the Spanish case.

As fledgling as they are promising, these Italian initiatives at the municipal level stand in stark contrast with those at the national scene where the left-leaning alternatives to traditional parties are greatly hindered by the competition that they face from the so-called Five Star Movement (M5S). This anti-euro party launched by the comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, is the only new political group to have successfully entered the national political arena since the onset of the crisis. In the European elections of 2014, the M5S finished second; with 21% of the vote, it came out far ahead of the “Other Europe with Tsipras” coalition. The latter is an electoral list to the left of the Democratic Party, which, despite support by renowned civil society figures, such as Barbara Spinelli, one of the co-founders of the daily La Repubblica, obtained a mere 4% of the vote.  In that respect, the Italian political landscape resembles its French counterpart. Although France’s National Front and the M5S have relatively little in common, in their respective countries, both parties manage to occupy the political space where protests against austerity and EU dictates are voiced, thereby preventing the emergence of any new alternative coming from the left.

At this juncture, while the “indignation” initially expressed in 2011 keeps regenerating so as to create new forms of political activism, the specific initiatives which emerge vary greatly from one country to the next. Spain, without a doubt, provides the most seamless and successful example of transitions, whereby activists groomed in social movements have not only entered the electoral process, but have also managed to create new structures, and to claim victory. They have done so with the support of the more traditional parties on the left, whose members have agreed to keep a low profile, so as to preserve the citizen-centered dynamic of the platform. In Italy, meanwhile, more classic alliances have taken shape: they are generally less ambitious with regard to the renewal of political practice, yet also strive to combine, in more or less equal parts, the rank and file of traditional parties and civil society figures. In Greece, a form of peaceful coexistence between Syriza and social movements has hitherto prevailed, with the latter accepting, more or less tacitly, representation by the former. The looming strikes against the implementation of the Third Memorandum, however, are likely to bring about a new phase in the relations between the Greek social movements and the Syriza government. In Portugal, the L/TDA campaign has done little more than to serve as an impetus for “old” parties to evolve, as it has been unable to reshape the political landscape by way of siphoning off the electoral base of social movements.

Translated by Lucie Kroening

Recommended citation: Lamant, Ludovic. “Occupational Options: The Political Trajectories of Social Movements in Southern Europe.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016)

A Democratic Revolution Underway in Barcelona: Barcelona en Comú

Spain is currently undergoing a political transformation, as three recent elections clearly demonstrate. With the municipal elections of May 24, 2015, various cities, most importantly Madrid and Barcelona, saw the rise to power of new political groups, organized from the ranks of various social activist movements. In the Catalan parliamentary election on September 27, 2015, 48% of Catalonia’s electorate voted in favor of the region’s independence from the central government. And the general election of December 20, 2015 proved the increasing untenability of Spain’s two party system (comprised of the Partido Popular and the PSOE, or Socialist Party), with the emergence of new political entities with unprecedented potential – most notably, the Podemos Party. This paper seeks to outline the changes that have enabled the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú (Catalan for “Barcelona in Common”) to win the elections in Barcelona, a victory that signals a rupture in the status quo of Spanish politics. Although the citizen platform Ahora Madrid (“Now Madrid”) did not gain the majority, it did receive the necessary support to have their candidate elected as mayor. Those of us who were closely involved in these recent events may fail to realize just how exceptional and unprecedented our current situation is; thus, taking a step back is useful if only to clarify the conditions in Barcelona that have led us to this point. How could Ada Colau, an activist for housing and human rights, possibly become mayor of Barcelona? What we are seeing is not just about a single individual, however. A more important question might be: How could a political project organized by anti-establishment social activists possibly gain control of Barcelona’s government?

The 15M

In 2011, only 3.9% of the population of Catalonia1 believed that their democracy worked well and did not require changes; 25.6% expressed the belief that it did not work and required many changes; 16.3% thought it needed a complete overhaul; and 54.2% agreed that it worked well, but required some changes. We had, and still have, a serious problem with our democracy and our forms of governance. Since then, we have witnessed a growth in both the so-called sovereigntist process and in the activism following the mobilizations and occupations that began on May 15, 2011.

Two calls-to-action took place in the middle of May, 2011: the 14M and the 15M. Though they shared a common background, and attracted large audiences, the calls did not rally the same people. 14M, organized to protest cutbacks by the Government of Catalonia – under the direction of Convergence and Union (Convergènciai Unió)2 – and was supported by both “majority” and “minority” labor unions – to borrow the mainstream media’s distinction. As for the 15M demonstrations, no one is exactly sure who had organized them. A couple of names were tossed around, unfamiliar to anyone not already involved in the movement: Democracia Real Ya! (“Real Democracy Now!”) and Juventud Sin Futuro (“Youth Without a Future”). It was surprising, almost puzzling, that so many people showed up, even if there weren’t as many present as the previous day’s gathering. But something new was happening: a different kind of participant, markedly younger on average, and there weren’t the usual flags and acronyms . . . just as Democracia Real Ya! described itself in its manifesto:

We are ordinary people. We are like you: people who get up every morning to study, to work or to look for a job, people who have family and friends. People who work hard every day to live and to provide a better future for those around us. Some of us consider ourselves more progressive, others more conservative. Some of us are believers, some aren’t. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others consider themselves apolitical . . . But we are all concerned and outraged by the social, political, economic scene before us. By the corruption among politicians, businessmen, and bankers . . . By their rendering the average citizen defenseless. (Democracia Real Ya!, 2011) 

15M began in city plazas, public spaces for diverse groups of people sharing similar goals to gather together and reclaim their rights. What made 15M different could be seen in some of the positions it took and the proposals it developed, but truly worth noting was its desire and willingness for collaboration across the board, among a wide range of individuals and political groups. The movement’s success in attracting members over the months that followed was due to the profound simplicity of its platform: what’s not working? The most basic, the most simple, and most profound bases of our society, our democracy, our public institutions, the rules that we have set for ourselves, and the ends that we pursue. Nothing could be more superficial, in the sense of these concepts forming the very surface of our daily lives – and nothing more profound because they compose the foundation of our society. Public health and education are central concerns because they are sharply affected by the politics of austerity: healthcare facilities, operating rooms, and hospitals are being closed; healthcare is becoming less and less accessible. Fiscal cuts in education affect instructors, class size, and tuition rates. With respect to housing, more and more people are finding that they cannot pay their rent or their mortgages. There is a pervasive feeling that our rights and basic necessities are under threat. And amidst all of this, incomprehensible policies, such as the so-called financial bailout, are being pushed forward. At the same time, social movements are beginning to focus on banks such as Bankia or Catalunya Caixa.

The movements we are seeing emerge across Spain, especially those arising in the aftermath of the 15M Plaza occupations – the Plaza de Catalunya in Barcelona, the Puerta del sol in Madrid, etc. – have signaled a turning point in social protest. 15M’s call-to-action is enacting important changes in people who were already mobilizing as well as in those new to activism, but also in the political and economic entities the movement aimed to criticize. The political landscape that emerged after the 15M invigorated activists across the country; it was more pluralistic, broader, richer, more united, more elaborate, and more capable of effecting change. The protests linked to 15M developed without large, rigidly hierarchical organizational structures; rather, they have been characterized by the very opposite. They don’t rely on the tactics of political parties or unions. Rather, they include experienced people and make use of new technology that fosters good communication and organization. After all, there’s no need for major political infrastructure. These are horizontal movements. The project of the confluencia, “convergence” – that is, the growing coalition of disparate political groups and social movements – allows for the consolidation of ideas, plans for action, and calls to rally.

15M protestors occupy a square
The Plaza de Catalunya, in Barcelona, during the 15M. Initiated by Democracia Real Ya!, the “occupation” of the square began on May 15, 2011 and continued for an entire month.

The diversity within the movements also merits attention. The goal was never to homogenize. This period of mobilization has steadily strengthened the organization of various groups and activist entities. Such is the case for Democracia Real Ya! or the Plataforma de Afectadospor la Hipoteca (PAH, “Mortgage Victims’ Platform”), which originated before the 15M, and have more fully developed since the Occupy movement. These organizations have taken root in Spain due to the vast reach of their activities. The proliferation of assemblies in different municipalities and neighborhoods, in the hubs of Democracia Real Ya! and the Plataforma de los Afectadospor la Hipoteca, as well as in spaces already devoted to social action, has been key for much of what has since been accomplished. We should have in mind that, with the 15M, nothing has occurred that had not already been in the works. However, given the impact of the events that took place in the streets and in the plazas on May 15, and over the course of the following days, we can consider 15M a turning point not only for new forms of social protest, but also for the highly visible emergence of another way of conducting politics, one that is essential for any pursuit of real democracy. The movements that we witnessed in 2011, and henceforth, share a common denominator in defending rights they believe to be just – the rights not only of individuals, but also of the groups of people that comprise our society and, by extension, the planet. These are rights they feel are under threat by the austerity measures implemented to deal with our current economic crisis – and the economic system that created it. In other words, politicians and markets (bankers, business owners, investors, speculators, etc.) appear to be the main players in an offensive that has society at large as its target.


“[The value of] apartments will never stop rising” was a common mantra during the years of the so-called real estate bubble. Major land developers and representatives of the real estate sector repeated this mantra time and again. There were still people who had difficulties finding a place to live, but we had to understand that things would inevitably remain this way. Let everyone get a mortgage. We know that, while it’s highly likely, there is no guarantee the sun will rise tomorrow. It has, every day throughout history, but there is always the possibility that one day, it won’t. And one day the sun did not come out as usual. That day, the “crisis” occurred. By then, too many people were already locked into mortgages; they had finally found a home, but now had to find a way to keep it. They had to be able to pay for what they thought they had acquired. A new mantra began spreading: “you have to pay your debts; no one forced you to get a mortgage.”

Then there emerged Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, “Mortgage Victims’ Platform”).3 Comprised of five people, the group was formed during an assembly on February 22, 2009. Since its inception, the PAH has impacted society on a number of levels. It has managed to accompany and transform the people who get involved in it. The group has negotiated ways out of desperate situations; it has sparked the general support of society; it has passed motions in city councils; it has affected the public agenda; it has, in short, led people to think that, “yes we can, sí se puede,” achieve what was once thought to be out of reach.

Who had ever heard of “dation in payment” (daciónenpago) before the PAH started talking about it? Who knew that, unlike their neighboring countries, in Spain, people could not return a property and in turn clear their debt, but instead would lose their homes and still have to continue paying on their mortgages? The PAH exposed situations it considered unjust and needed to be changed, situations about which even those affected might not be fully aware. What would we know about the housing emergency we are in, were it not for the PAH? What would we know about the behavior of financial institutions? Would we know that there can be alternatives to evictions? What about options that exist in other countries? To what extent would we understand the way mortgages worked, or the way legislation was passed in Spain or in Europe?

The PAH has been in the making for a long time. We could say that it emerged out of movements that some had taken to be failures. It arose out of movements for housing rights, such as the one that, in 2007, organized thousands of Spaniards to stand before city halls across the nation and yell simultaneously, “No tendrás casa en la puta vida” (“you’ll never have a house in your fucking life”) – movements that, during the years of economic growth, denounced the barriers to basic housing rights, and decried the actions of real estate mobs who were expelling people from their homes to make better money from commercialization. These mobilizations had their repercussions. The public campaigns might have disappeared, but not the will to keep working for housing rights. The housing “crisis” would eventually arrive, and some people believed that the movement should continue, paying even closer attention now to those who felt its effects most acutely and severely. Regardless, in February of 2009, the group consisted of only five members. There was a lot of work ahead of them, and unfortunately few answers issued from either government or financial entities.

While demonstrations have been the most typical form of protest in Spanish society, the PAH has instead focused its efforts elsewhere, seeking alternative methods for stopping evictions, city council motions, protests at the homes of particular individuals (escraches),4 ILPs (“Popular Legislative Initiatives”) brought to parliament,5 and occupation of buildings – actions that have immediate impact. Clearly, the group does not just ask or petition; if they do not achieve their goals at first, they try other means: blocking an eviction, organizing an escrache, facilitating social work, and offering housing solutions for people in need. For every problem that arises, they seek the most effective solution possible. This is no easy task. Some people believe that the power of the PAH is fueled by the despair of those who have been harmed and are at risk of losing their homes. But we have learned how this situation can also cause vulnerability. Perhaps the PAH’s greatest achievement, in the personal realm, has been simply to be with people in the face of their anxieties, fears, pressures, and threats.

Ada Colau with supporters at rally
Alongside Ada Colau, the co-founder of PAH (Platform of People Affected by Mortgage), protesters take part in a demonstration against corruption outside the People Party’s headquarters in Barcelona on July 14, 2013. (Quique Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)

The actions of the PAH have illustrated one main idea: legality and legitimacy do not always overlap. The PAH moves in the interstices between legality and illegality, in a space where what is legal can be interrogated and perhaps found illegitimate; a space where that which, according to our institutions, is illegal and illegitimate, might be made legal, because the citizenry wills it to be. And if this legalization does not occur, then non-violent civil disobedience comes into play as a last resort. There is no wish to operate outside of the law; rather, everything is done to find a solution within legal bounds. But, should this prove impossible, there will not be silence or resignation. This situation won’t allow for it. For a group of people to violently block a judicial committee from carrying out an eviction is not legal – it is disobedient. To occupy a block of apartments belonging to a financial institution bailed out with public funds is not legal – it is disobedient. But such actions might end up, as they have before, in an agreement with a financial entity to offer public housing. The PAH’s civil disobedience has a triple objective: to help people in need, to change what is considered legal, and to attract public attention in order to generate the debate necessary for provoking social change. These three goals underlie the desire to transform our society into a more civil environment. The aim of disobedience is to enable a new form of legality to emerge, one that corresponds to what is understood to be just, legitimate, good, appropriate – better than the system we have now.

The PAH has made the slogan “yes we can, sí se puede” popular because it has proven that it can. Perhaps this is the most valuable lesson for people who aspire to bring social, economic, and political injustices to an end. The PAH has provoked us to rethink the bases of our society and to construct new ones in their place. We are now able to truly debate and, humbly, we thank the PAH for landmark achievements. And from within PAH there has emerged an important nucleus of people who have given life to Barcelona en Comú, and who now govern Barcelona.

An Ethical-Political Change in Government

We are living in a time of profound changes. Taking advantage of the crisis, economic powers have undertaken an open offensive against the rights and social achievements of the majority of the population. Nevertheless, the yearning for a real democracy is growing ever stronger – not only in the plazas, or the streets, or the internet, but also in the ballot boxes.6

This is the first paragraph of the manifesto with which Guanyem Barcelona – later known as Barcelona en Comú – introduced itself in June of 2014. The document discussed a radical objective, because it aimed at what members took to be the root of the problem:

Rescuing democracy from the powers holding it hostage is a difficult and ambitious, but at the same time, an exhilarating challenge. It demands the creation of new means for articulating social will and for political intervention where people who are already organized, and those who are just joining the movement can unite; where those who have been fighting for some time, and those who feel conned and now aspire to get involved, can come together for a common cause: Barcelona.7

In June of 2014 Guanyem Barcelona came onto the scene and all across Spain we witnessed a mass movement to find electable candidates from within like-minded political organizations and from amongst vocal members of the populace. Just as occupations grew in number since those that took place in Madrid and Barcelona, the number of PAH collectives multiplied after the group’s rise in Barcelona. The goal was not only to infiltrate local councils and legislations; mayors’ seats must be won to truly reverse policies that fail to guarantee basic rights and to begin conducting a different kind of politics.

There are two ideas that tend to guide the endeavors of these citizen-candidates: the current socio-political situation has made this period, historically, the worst period in our lives; accordingly, now is the best time to try something new. The Guanyem Barcelona’s platform stands out because, among other things, it calls for convergence. The will exists to create a new space where people, regardless of political affiliation, can meet and articulate proposals that respond to what the people of Barcelona, or any other municipality, might want. There is not much tradition, culture, or experience for this initiative, but many see convergence as desirable, necessary, and even indispensable if people truly wish to achieve common goals.

The fact that, behind this type of initiative, we find people and collectives that had never before considered political office is also something unique. These individuals did not comprehend that it was their right. Now this has changed. Government bodies are not an end in themselves, they are a means to achieve important goals. Just one more means, that is, because some of these people have spent significant time in political advocacy, and have become experts in the realm of education, water, energy, housing, social economy, and democratic consolidation. Now they want to continue their work from within government.

From its inception, Guanyem has expounded the need to find another way of conducting politics in the current environment of social emergency, which has resulted from the crisis we are experiencing and has been compounded by the responses of the political institutions that are supposed to represent their citizenry. A fundamental way to truly accomplish such a change is by uniting ethics and politics. Thus, one of the first projects was to elaborate a code of ethics. They sought to create a document that outlined the essential principles for a politics that contributes to democracy, not to exploitation by individual or group interests. The ethics upheld by Guanyem are those it feels are best for society at large: the recognition and defense of people’s rights to a dignified life in which they can participate as empowered and responsible citizens in the decision-making of their community.

Ethics are the reflection, analysis, arguments, and debates on what we consider to be right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, without the need to propose anything concrete. Ethics are the standards by which we judge all that we do individually and collectively. The questions are many, but we must ask them if we do not want to make such issues inaccessible to our citizens. Ethics, like analysis, reflection, and debate, do not offer us unquestionable answers or absolute truths; rather, they encourage us to think, to propose, to reach agreements, to establish criteria based on what we have argued over and agreed upon. In the realm of ethics we should not be looking for easy answers, but for a path for establishing principles for our personal and collective behavior, recognizing that these principles, in open and plural societies, cannot rest on self-evident truths and uncritically received dogmas. Ethics must help us search for shared principles.

Guanyem composed its ethical code accordingly. First, as an exercise for bringing together citizens who stood at different points on the political spectrum, a set of documents were developed as the basis for a possible agreement. The second task was to foster citizens’ participation online and in person. Working meetings, the “Governing by Obeying, Ethical Code Consensus Building Conference,” was organized and hundreds of people attended the sessions for training, deliberation, and developing proposals. A more specific text was then returned to various constituent groups in order to incorporate proposals that generated consensus online and in the workshops. A majority of citizens eventually ratified the finalized document. The code proposes 25 concrete measures grouped into three areas:8 democratization of political representation, auditing and accountability; financing, transparency and expenditure management; and professionalization of politics, the reduction of privileges and measures to tackle corruption. Various groups (the CUP, Bildu and ANOVA, among others) have been proposing similar codes of ethics over the past few years and the issue was in fact central to the platforms of the X Party (Partido X) and especially (because of its impact) of Podemos in the last European elections. It should be noted, however, that less than 10% of what is laid out in the code is currently being practiced by any group in the municipality of Barcelona.9

Guanyem wants to win in order to make this ethical-political change possible within the current model of political representation, and to initiate a change in the way politics function, creating an establishment whose politics arise from ethical commitment and politicians who don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk. It might not be simple, or quick, to find the paths that can lead us to paradise, but there is a desire to clearly point out those routes that lead us to hell so that we no longer follow them.

The Democratization of Political Representation

Let us try to be a bit more concrete. The ethical code articulates a series of practices and actions that Guanyem members holding political office, whether elected or freely appointed, must fulfill. Guanyem members in government commit to implementing the ways and means for these ethical principles to become obligatory norms for everyone in municipal administration. This ethical code should be flexible, dynamic, and concise. An important part of it is centered on people’s behavior. The assumption underlying these proposals is that the systemic corruption revealed over the last few years is a perverse effect of a deficient democracy. Further, in being a poor democracy, it can only be cured with more, and better, democracy – in both the political and economic senses – and must encourage civic participation that is popular, real, and not merely rhetorical. It must discover ways of producing and distributing more cooperative, egalitarian, and sustainable resources. Authentic political regeneration requires the involvement of serious and honorable women and men. But this cannot depend solely on personal virtues. Necessary, as well, are judicial guarantees and citizen checks and balances: for even the most exemplary of people, once in power, should be supervised and regulated to ensure that they are governing by obeying and doing so in the service of the majority. The organization will work on a set of procedures that consolidate and put the principles of the ethical code into action.

Through the code of ethics, Guanyem seeks commitment on the part of elected officials to the guidelines laid out for them. Such can be said to occur when representatives duly carry out the decisions that issue from democratic processes that are open to all, promoting political responsibility for both voters and elected officials. Moreover, agendas, meeting minutes, and daily proceedings must be made public so that people can know with whom their representatives are meeting and in regards to what.

The recruitment criteria for discretionary appointments will also be made public. The proceedings must be made accessible to citizens through face-to-face and virtual means that are democratic and open to people from any sector or zone (city, neighborhood, or district). The information should always be presented through an accessible online format, allowing it to be commented upon and edited. Included in the criteria, too, will be the standard procedure for censuring and, if necessary, firing, freely appointed officials who grossly mismanage or flagrantly fail to implement the collectively elaborated program. In order to make this possible, quality mechanisms will be established to evaluate the performance of the people holding public office, and the citizenry will have the right, and the duty, to actively participate in the monitoring of public officials’ duties so as to guarantee a just and honest application of this principle. Duties will be terminated immediately if the judiciary finds an official guilty of crimes related to corruption, furthering of interests for private gain, influence peddling, profiting from public or private funds, bribery, embezzlement, or the acquisition of public funds for the benefit of oneself or a third party. Officials will likewise be removed if the judiciary finds them guilty of crimes dealing with racism, xenophobia, gender violence, homophobia, and other infractions against human rights or labor rights.

Those who hold elected, administrative, or freely appointed posts will commit to the following: renouncing the gifts and privileges that may be offered to them because of their position, and which might signify preferential treatment; not holding multiple positions in government with the exception of those related to their status as councilmen or council women; not receiving multiple salaries or charging remunerations for attending gatherings; establishing a maximum net monthly pay of 2,200 euros, including per diems (accepting that this compensation guarantees dignified conditions to exercise the responsibilities and duties that are expected of the post assumed); limiting their mandate to two consecutive legislative sessions, which can be extended by one term if agreed upon after discussion and validation by the citizenry; an expedient transfer of information and knowledge (without remuneration); following a protocol agreed upon during the campaign; not taking, for a period of at least 5 years, positions of responsibility in companies created, regulated, supervised by, or that have been beneficiaries of a municipal contract, within the sector and/or industry where the person has had a representative role – in no event will they be able to hold positions on these companies’ administrative boards; making public all income, assets, returns on equity, and any other data needed to detect potential conflicts of interest; and the creation of a citizens’ audit. This commitment will be in effect for 3 years after the person has already left their public post.

To ensure that government representation galvanizes citizens whose political participation has not seen much development since the end of the Francoist regime, the population must be included in the decision-making and the political positioning of their representatives with respect to strategic issues and projects that have social, environmental, and urban impact in their city, district, or neighborhood – taking into account the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Everyone who occupies an elected or appointed position must be committed to pushing through and supporting all of the citizen initiatives proposed within the existing legal framework (at the scale of the neighborhood, district, or city), and must especially commit to maintaining a close relationship with vulnerable groups, guaranteeing a place in their agendas to hear them and respond to their proposals. Upon voting, they must keep in mind the reports provided by members of the administration who work closely with these groups.

Constructing Democracy with Each Step

Guanyem Barcelona has made agreements with Equo, Esquerra Unidai Alternativa (EUiA), Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds, Podemos and Procés Constituent.10  It is a party that originated in the PSUC, a communist party that opened itself up to feminism, pacifism, and ecologism. Proćes Constituent is a citizen project presented in 2013, with the initiative of some political collectives, that emerged with the desire to promote a different political, economic, and social model. It is anti-capitalist and is a partisan of independence for Catalonia.] Nevertheless, we need to keep in mind that this convergence is civic rather than partisan. Convergence does require some agreement among the parties involved, but more than that, it requires working side-by-side on a daily basis. The point of this political convergence is to bring together, within government, the very people who had been questioning government policy, but from outside the structures of power.

Guanyem Barcelona holds its goals and the methods for achieving those goals in equal esteem. This basic concept not only informs their analyses and ethical debates, but also the ways the movement organizes. After receiving more than 30,000 signatures supporting the first manifesto, Guanyem began a process that seems destined to land them victories in the next municipal elections. This process is inevitably comprised of many stages. Those lying ahead of us will largely be determined by the political convergence, by the preparation of the electoral campaign, and by life after elections. It is hard to say how things will turn out; whatever happens must necessarily result in the building and deepening of democracy, as we have stated here.

Currently, Guanyem Barcelona is organized into neighborhood groups, committees, an executive council, and a plenary. The neighborhood groups are Guanyem’s own spaces, where anyone who wants to be part of the proposal for convergence can participate in his or her personal capacity. These groups are organized as open, self-managed assemblies, though their duties and their ability to make decisions are limited. They must attend to the reality and the social fabric of the territory where they operate. The Coordinadora de Barrios (“neighborhood coordination”), which includes two people from each neighborhood group, forms those groups’ link with, and representation within, the other branches of Guanyem. These spaces welcome and foment the participation of individuals who want to advocate for a proposal in their neighborhood. Advocates assess the well being of their neighborhoods; foster spaces for exchanging opinions and developing proposals out of them; network with different neighborhood stakeholders whose knowledge and experience with the neighborhood can contribute to their assessment, while respecting stakeholder autonomy. The neighborhood groups participate in the plenary, and they coordinate with the Content Commission.

The committees are where Guanyem’s essential, day-to-day work gets done. Each committee determines its number of participants, its profile, and its internal organization (subcommittees, tasks, working groups, etc.). Two people from each committee have general oversight, and all members can attend the plenaries. To be sure, these are the bodies that have grown most easily, and that bring together the greatest number of people and neighborhood groups. Currently there are five active committees: the Content and Accounts Committee, which coordinates the creation and execution of key concepts and the development of Guanyem’s content and mission (this committee is the largest; it has developed an extensive list of themes, which have gradually been multiplying as hundreds of people have participated); the Communications Committee, which promotes, executes, and plans Guanyem’s communication (its specific responsibilities include the website and its server, graphic design, social networks, the press, videos, streaming, mailing, editing, and translating); the Logistics and Finance Committee, which gives logistical support to the different actors in Guanyem and, in addition to securing funding, carries out the general administrative and economic management; the Committee of Convergence with Political Forces, which has established contacts with different political forces with which Guanyem wants to converge and work; the Organization Committee, which is formed by three subcommittees – the territorial (in charge of coordinating Guanyem’s expansion into districts and neighborhoods), collaborators (in charge of contacting people who would like to collaborate with Guanyem, facilitating their incorporation into the project), and internal organization (in charge of elaborating operating protocols and the development of the organizational structure for different phases of the project).

An executive council oversees Guanyem’s entire process (strategy, action plan, general calendar, analysis of current events, etc.), and coordinates the different aspects of the organizational structure. It consists of Guanyem’s spokespersons and their support teams, two people from each committee, two people from the neighborhood coordination councils, and others on specific working groups who are often asked to address timely issues. One or two people also take care of secretarial work. The executive council meets each week and requires very little rotation to keep it functional. Urgent and operative decisions are made in the group, and they identify decisions that must be made in the Plenary. Together with an action team, the executive council ensures that the Plenary runs smoothly (putting together the agenda for the day, organizing its operations, etc.).

The Plenary, the heart of the organization, is the space where the most important issues are articulated and decided upon, where mandates are generated and where accountability is anchored. It is a space that is clearly evolving in tandem with the growth of the movement. In its first phase, the Plenary was an assembly place for anyone involved in launching Guanyem, and those who later joined the movement. After a general organizational structure was established, it was agreed upon that the Plenary should serve as the gathering space for those who participated in committees, neighborhood groups, and the executive group. It is possible that, in the future, participation will be limited to a maximum number of people from committees and neighborhood coordinators in order to make individual sessions more operative and viable. The Plenary meets weekly or biweekly, depending on the activities it has on the agenda. The group intends to use assemblies to extend decision-making to all who participate in Guanyem on issues such as validating and agreeing upon convergence with other groups.

Guanyem is an ongoing project that is constantly developing. It is a project that has at its base a solid proposal, but whose organization is still being developed. We can assume this development will generate growth, convergence, and the need to constantly think and re-think the organization. The Organization Committee works in the short, medium, and long term to obtain a kind of organization that corresponds to the quality of democracy that is sought. The means and the ends cannot be contradictory.

It was agreed upon that the electoral list would be decided during the primaries, when people could vote for a leader, their team, and territorial representatives who would run individually from each district. Thus far, the only list presented to the primaries is the one led by Ada Colau and 37 individuals running for district posts.

From its inception, the movement has sought to foment democracy one step at a time. It sought to win the elections, while knowing that such a feat was not enough to genuinely change anything. The work done to maintain the internal organization of Barcelona en Comú would face a serious challenge if the elections were won and the group agreed to govern. The pressure would be intense; elected officials would constantly need to make decisions on the spot. Will it be possible to uphold the same level of democracy and transparency achieved until now? The viability of the project will depend, in great measure, on the answer to this question.

Ada Colau supporters from Barcelona en Comu holding signs and celebrating her victory
Supporters of Barcelona en Comú celebrate the victory of Ada Colau in the Spanish municipal and regional elections on May 24, 2015. (Quique Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)

Making Another City Possible

From the beginning, Guanyem has focused on developing its central tenets and concerns. Through a series of analyses, debates, and proposals, the movement was then able to articulate its stances on various issues. Once the initial convergence was established, the group created a list of measures to be taken should Guanyem win the election for mayor. Titled the “Emergency Plan for the First Months of the Mandate,” the document states that:

Barcelona has enough resources to confront inequalities, and to become a model for what it means to live well, together, with respect for others and the environment. To best use these resources, we need a courageous and credible government – capable of confronting powerful groups that place their individual interests over those of the majority – and to value the collective intelligence of the people and their neighborhoods.11

The plan is structured around four basic lines of action: first, to create dignified work and diversify the model of production; second, to guarantee basic social rights; third, to reverse the privatizations and the projects that go against the general welfare; and forth, to audit the city government and to eliminate existing privileges. This is not the whole of the electoral program, nor does it touch upon all of the areas of concern. For example, it does not mention education, but this in no way means education does not matter to the movement. The plan is something of a declaration of programmatic principles with regard to the policies that will be developed. The entirety of the work carried out until now, beyond the “Emergency Plan,” can be seen in the documents developed by different focus groups.

The plan’s first line of action is devoted to the creation of jobs, and is focused on the model of production. About 100,000 residents of Barcelona are unemployed, half of whom are long-term unemployed, and about half of whom receive no assistance. More than 40% of youth are without work, and 15% of those who are employed live on poverty wages. Barcelona en Comú claims that economic activity must be diversified, and that the model of production should be reoriented to be more socially just and environmentally sound. The way to accomplish this goal would be to start off with a training program, and to indirectly create sustainable jobs by renovating homes to be more ecologically sound; ensuring preventive and sustainable waste management; creating commercial networks centered on geographic proximity; caring for and supporting people – especially children, the elderly, and those who are handicapped – and promoting cooperative and technologically up-to-date economies. One of the program’s primary objectives is to create 2,500 jobs, which requires an investment of 50 million euros.

This first line of action will also aim to create means by which to ensure the quality of municipal contracts. The objective is to use all mechanisms at the municipalities’ disposal to guarantee basic workers’ rights, both for the municipal and contracted workers. To make this possible, they will need to review the terms of existing contracts. Incorporated into the terms of every new contract of the municipality will be the guarantee that workers’ rights, and basic environmental rights, be respected. In addition, in collaboration with the labor inspectorate, and in dialogue with the different unions and employers’ associations, greater protections will be put in place for employees of companies located in the municipality.

The second line of action seeks to guarantee basic social rights. One of its crucial tenets is allocating as much of the municipality’s resources as possible to help eliminate financially motivated evictions, and guarantee a dignified resettlement for those forced into such a situation. It is anticipated that an investment of 50 million euros would be required for the plan. Barcelona en Comú wants to guarantee the right to food year-round for all children and adolescents living below the poverty line. They understand the right to food as a basic right for the entire population. In 2013, 2,865 children in Barcelona suffered from malnutrition. Between 2014 and 2015, 4,639 applications for grants for food were kept out of official government statistics. An initial investment of 20 million euros will be allocated toward the measure. It is estimated that 10% of families in Barcelona, about 80,000 people, suffer from energy insecurity. They are unable to pay their light, water, and gas bills on a regular basis. This reality contrasts with the exorbitant profits made by utility companies, and speaks to the lack of public policies that might resolve this situation. A dialogue with utility companies will be held to help negotiate guaranteed access to basic provisions.

There will be interventions in every domain. For example, fairer water fees will be decided upon, and research will be conducted to find ways to make it public again. A fund of 5 million euros will also be created to cover the most urgent cases for energy assistance. To guarantee the right to health, an agreement will be made with the city council of Barcelona to pressure the Gobierno de la Generalitat to reverse current policies. There will be campaigns to assist the most vulnerable individuals in primary care centers and hospitals. The Generalitat de Catalunya should cover the public costs; however, a fund of 5 million euros will be established to finance these measures. The basic right to sustainable transportation for reasons of social cohesion or health will also be protected and guaranteed. The group will also work to revise tax rates that have been acutely harmful to the middle class and, especially, to the poor. In the last few years, a period of increasing poverty, these rates have exceeded 20%. In a city where one in five children is living in poverty, and where 5,000 people were excluded from the Minimum Insertion Income (RMI) in 2014, a proposal needs to be made for a municipal benefit for all families under the poverty line so that their income can reach 60% of the city’s average (about 570 euros). The organization will also attempt to establish a guaranteed basic income in Catalonia. To launch this policy, an initial investment of 25 million euros is expected.

The third line of action is directed toward reviewing and reversing privatizations and projects that undermine the general welfare. The group will search for new ways of building public-cooperative-community partnerships. It will also declare an immediate moratorium on the opening of tourist hotels and apartments until an audit, under citizen oversight, is completed and a tourism plan for the entire city is developed. There are also plans to curtail the participation of the city council in private business projects; to suspend the expansion of large commercial centers; to discontinue or revise the processes of privatization or outsourcing that harm the general welfare, such as those affecting daycares, and parking lots that already exist, or which are being proposed by the Institute of Parks and Gardens; and to investigate and discuss the conditions of questionable concessions to private firms.

The fourth line of action of this emergency plan would be wiping the slate clean: getting rid of the existing entitlements, and starting from scratch. An emergency plan like the one presented demands an audit of the current state of the government and inherited municipal debts, putting an end to the unethical practices, and creating institutions that are more relevant for the citizenry and that are more efficient in resolving the concrete problems affecting residents of Barcelona. The population must get actively involved in supervising the plan’s execution, making use of and reinforcing formal and informal spaces for political and social participation. Other goals are to reduce the salaries of council members and people in other high government posts; to eliminate official cars, and do away with unfair allowances; to start an audit of the main public bodies that promote economic and social well-being and to reinforce the role of social entities; to revise unnecessary spending in the context of social emergency (such as the millions of euros conferred to the Circuito de Catalunyaen Montmeló); to revise and extend the participatory spaces that foster this plan’s execution in every district – these spaces will offer technical and skilled-work training programs for their members.

Barcelona en Comú believes that the 160 million euros it would cost to implement this plan represents only a modest part of the budget that has already been decided upon in the municipality of Barcelona for 2015. This quantity could be obtained just by redirecting current priorities for investment and expenditure. When it comes to investing in social welfare projects, the government of CiU is frugal. Still, it dedicates an amount that Barcelona en Comú considers excessive for maintaining its own administration, publicity, or economic sectors that are bloated and unsustainable. The analysis of the municipal budget shows that the allotment for expansion of road construction was 139.4 million euros, far beyond that of other allotments, such as the 10.1 million invested in housing, or the 19.1 million in social investments. Of the 15 neighborhoods with the lowest incomes, 11 have received investments that fall below the city’s average. The cost of the investments in luxury roads is 16 million, which is far more than the 6.3 million spent on rehabilitation, or the 4.8 million allocated for constructing new daycares. At the time of this text’s submission, a participatory process to create the electoral program was still underway.

Final Note

Barcelona en Comú has come to power without a majority, and it needs to form alliances with other forces in order to be able to advance its policies. It is too soon to estimate what the consequences will be. Currently, they are looking for a way to form a coalition government, but doing so will not be easy. For now, advances are made step by step alongside political parties which share specific and targeted goals. It is noteworthy that the plenary of the municipality voted against one of the first symbolic proposals of Barcelona en Comú: a salary cut for elected representatives. The councilors of Barcelona en Comú, including the mayor, have greatly reduced their own salaries, but not as a result of changes in the law. They receive the traditional salary, but put a large part of it toward social projects.

At the time of this text’s completion, it has only been seven months since the new government was elected. It is too early to analyze the policies developed or their future effects. There will be other occasions for that. Yet, one can clearly see that the government is prioritizing its commitment to the most vulnerable sectors of society through increased spending on social welfare. The government has upheld its decision to end evictions and negotiate with owners of properties that could be used for alternative housing. It is also important to analyze how these policies have been carried out: appointments, bids, internal competition, transparency, participation, etc. The group will face many challenges in the legislature, some of which have already arisen – consider the pressure and hostility from sections of the elite who do not necessarily share their political opinions. It would be unfortunate if, ultimately, Barcelona en Comú effectively reinforces the impediments to democracy that it had wished to break – broken promises, failure to reach agreements, or acceptance of the traditional political practices that they had sought to overturn. No one ever said that a democratic revolution was easy. Many people didn’t even think that the elections could be won. This is the opportunity that multiple generations have been waiting for, so that they can say that democracy exists, that it is the people who govern.

Translated by Diego Arrocha, Johnathan Vaknin, and Leah Leone

Recommended citation: Mir Garcia, Jordi. “A Democratic Revolution Underway in Barcelona.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016)