As the tide against austerity politics seems to be turning, I’ve seen a fair amount of comment recently trying to pin down the main beneficiaries of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and austerity in Europe.
Much of this has come from the left, and much of it claims that left-wing parties in continental Europe are the main beneficiaries. In the UK, some of this has come from people involved in the Left Unity project, which hopes to form itself into a new party later in the year.
Left Unity are clearly trying to model themselves (rightly, in my view) on the more accessible, non-sectarian left parties that have sprung up in Europe in the last few years, the most obviously successful of these being Syriza in Greece (currently the official opposition and neck-and-neck in polls with the conservative New Democracy party)*.
This seems like a welcome break from the terminally sectarian, constantly splintering, and undemocratic parties of the past, led by ‘charismatic’ leaders of the Galloway/Sheridan/Scargill variety, and a break from the politics of the Cold War. These old parties are, as Slavoj Zizek bluntly said when talking about the old Stalinist Greek Communist Party (currently suffering huge losses to Syriza), the people who ‘forgot to die’.
With the excitement around Syriza, and the air of triumphalism around the fact that austerity seems to be on the ideological back foot – with even the IMF urging a focus on growth – it is worth examining who is benefitting from mass anger against austerity in Europe.
UKIP scored big in the recent local council elections in the UK – 23% – and many leftists here seem to see this, wrongly, as an expression of an innate British conservatism not reflected in the rest of Europe, where they see protests, strikes, and rising left-wing parties as an expression of anger against austerity politics. Even a brief look at the current state of Europe reveals that this is simply not true. Rather than being an exception to any imagined European fightback against austerity from the left, UKIP are mirroring the rise of the radical right as the dominant opposition to mainstream politics in Europe , even in countries with a traditionally strong left.
France is the most obvious starting point, and the 2012 elections an almost perfect example of Europe’s problem. Despite heavy media attention, and lots of hype from even the mainstream press that he would perform exceptionally due to the backlash against austerity, Jean-Luc Melenchon disappointed, with his share of the vote was totally eclipsed by Marine Le Pen’s de-nazified Front National. Le Pen is one of the few European political leaders to take a party that was once explicitly racist and anti-semitic in the old neofascist tradition, and successfully transform it into a ‘reformed’ nationalist party. It is interesting that Le Pen once said she saw the Front National as more like UKIP than the BNP.
In Germany, the Die Linke party – another European left-wing success story – seem likely to suffer heavy losses in the upcoming federal elections – currently polling around 7%, down from nearly 12% at the last election. Given the German nationalist right’s inability to ‘detoxify’ as other European parties have – something Italian neofascists equally struggle with – most votes that would otherwise go to a reformed nationalist party of the northern European variety are channeled to the centre-right.
In Spain, Izquierda Unida, the main left party, finished millions of votes behind the two neo-liberal parties, and barely increased their vote share from the previous election. Regional nationalism has seen a surge of support, especially in Catalonia – manifested in last year’s gigantic march in Barcelona for independence, and often plays on rhetoric that has focused on a claimed disparity between productive and unproductive regions. Catalan leaders have attempted to paint their region as economically productive as opposed to the rest of Spain, especially the ‘lazy south’. This mirrors the xenophobic language of current European politics in general, with the austere northern countries contrasted favourably with lazy, indebted, unproductive periphery countries. A clear fabrication, especially since the revelation that Greek workers work on average 48% more hours than Germans. While many, if not most, Spanish regionalist parties are generally liberal, if not social democratic, they nevertheless express a rise of nationalism over a universal leftism.
This rhetoric has fed the rise of the radical right parties in northern Europe, arguably where nationalists have been most successful. The Danish People’s Party, Swedish Democrats, True Finns, and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands have all performed well (extremely well in some cases) in recent elections, and have dominated opposition to their respective centre-left/centre-right parties. While some of these parties differ in their embrace of liberal economics – the True Finns, for instance, are supportive of the welfare state – all share a focus on halting immigration, strong law and order policies, protectionism, Euroscepticism, ‘national culture’, and an opposition to social liberalism and multiculturalism. They have all broken from the neofascist, and explicitly racist tradition that has until now characterised the postwar radical right – in the way that Nick Griffin failed to do with the BNP – and present themselves as professional, capable politicians. In their rhetoric and policies, they are generally undistinguishable from UKIP.
The current riots in Sweden are highlighting this similarity. The Swedish Democrats have been getting a fair amount of coverage in the mainstream press in the last few days, and have succeeded, without really having to try too hard, in blaming the unrest on immigration, multiculturalism, welfare, and liberal social policies (see: http://rt.com/op-edge/sweden-stockholm-immigrants-riots-771/ ), as well as the welfare state. They are behaving almost identically as the right and their press did during the riots in the UK.
The idea that the left is ascendant in Europe, and that UKIP is an exception to this rule, is a dangerous fallacy that needs to be confronted where it appears. Despite high-profile protests, and the rise and subsequent defeat of the Occupy and Indignado movements, the left has somewhat disappeared from the stage. At the moment, opposition to the political and economic consensus is being captured by the nationalist right and its emphasis on the EU, liberalism, public spending, law and order, and immigration. Social democrats who prescribe unending stimulus, ‘growth measures’ and ‘investment’ as a way of keeping the neoliberal patient alive, are not benefitting from disaffection, except in the pages of the liberal and centre-left media, and are not convincing their own populations. The Labour Party are not polling spectacularly, the German social democrats are set for a hammering in the upcoming elections, and the Hollande government is immensely unpopular. The radical right is filling a vacuum where the non-neoliberal left should be.
*Not forgetting that Greece, perennially contrarian as it is, also has an explicitly racist, unreformed neofascist party in third place in the polls.