Thursday, June 05, 2014

Populists against the elites

The big question of 'the crisis' is, why has the Right benefited rather than the Left?  The same question might be repeated of the recent European elections.  Why should the smooth, gollum-eyed racist-whisperer Nigel Farage be the major beneficiary in the UK?  And worse, why must we witness, as part of this right-ward lurch, the growth of Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Swedish Democrats, the Dutch Freedom Party, and so on and so on?

The next big question, though - I'm not answering the first one - is why does the Left succeed where it does?  What makes them so special?  In terms of elections at least, there are a few patterns which I will take the liberty of spelling out, because I don't trust you to do it.

First, the Left seems to have benefited primarily in a number of debtor nations which have been particularly badly affected by austerity.  Greece and Spain are most notable examples.  However, even Ireland, where the United Left Alliance fell apart in the last year, showed surprisingly strong results for the radical left, although the major beneficiary of anti-austerity feeling was Sinn Fein despite its active implementation of austerity in the north.

Second, while some established left formations have done reasonably well, the real boost has been to the marginal forces who have suddenly been catapulted into a prominence quite out of proportion to their real social weight.  Podemos is the clearest example of this, although I think it is also true of Syriza, whose influence before the 2012 elections was smaller than the more moderate left party, Dimar.  This is, I've argued before, a feature of the conjuncture.  The decomposition of traditional working class parties is a long-term trend which has been accelerated dramatically in these countries owing to the complicity of these parties in implementing harsh austerity measures. This means that there is a large space in which small and fragile groups can achieve influence in unpredictable ways.

Third, in my opinion the nature of the breakthroughs being achieved is largely a populist one.  That is to say, it is when new formations manage to puncture the bubble of bipartisan niceties, with slogans that are both resonant and pit 'the people' against a 'power bloc' that is insulated from popular opinion, that they succeed.  These populist interpellations work best when both conservative and social democratic parties are colluding in the implementation of austerity, as in Greece and Spain.  The excellent blogger Splintered Sunrise reckons that there is a wider tendency toward oligarchic cartel politics which helps to create a space for populist ruptures of either the right or the left.  I think this is true, although the principle is less effective where social democracy has been able to adapt, articulate a milder form of austerity and include some populist measures in its agenda.  Still, looking at where there have been left breakthroughs in the UK - Tower Hamlets and Bradford - it does seem that the more entrenched the managerial, deal-brokering elites of Labourism are in a locality, the more chance there is for a backlash.

Fourth, the populist nature of these organisations is linked to their social base which is far more in social movements, which have little structure and no clear class-identity, than in the traditional structures of the labour movement.  Indeed, it is a characteristic of recent global protest movements - from indignados to occupiers, Tahrir to Taksim - that they have cut across class lines, incorporating wider layers of the middle class than has hitherto been evident.  This has to do with: i) the processes of class deformation long under way in the working class, which saw traditionally well-organised groups disorganised and the political coordination of the class in its specifically social democratic form depleted.  While the working class has entered the crisis in bad shape, the traditional solidarity of middle classes with the bourgeoisie has been severely tested by the recession and ensuing politics of austerity; and ii) the way in which the crisis impacted upon different class strata in the process of decline or ascent.  Those sectors of the working and middle classes which were already in decline (that is, in a process of deformation: losing their economic position and political influence) when the crisis struck were more likely to move to the Right and cleave to a racist nationalism.  Those which had been reproducing themselves in a relatively stable way or (and this is more the case outside of Europe) were on the rise, were more likely to react by moving to the Left.

Fifth, the major beneficiaries tend to be critical of the EU rather than overtly anti-EU.  This is true of Syriza, Podemos, and - since we're counting them as beneficiaries of the anti-austerity surge - Sinn Fein.  This is a limitation imposed by the relatively weak economic position of the debtor nations, where membership of the EU has been seen as a route out of underdevelopment.  There is a bitter irony in this, given the way the EU has consolidated and fastened in place the existing hierarchy of states rather than promoting convergence.  But it's a problem for the Left.  The EU is not melting down and, while political support for the EU has been tested, these results show that it is far from exhausted.  It has not resolved its problems, but they are far from calling into question the future of the eurozone as seemed to be the case a couple of years ago.  This does not rule out slogans which, though not formally calling for a break with the EU or even the eurozone, do nonetheless go well beyond the limits of what the EU can tolerate.  But it does make the strategic necessity of challenging the EU from the left much more difficult.

There is one final factor which, I think, is specific to the Podemos results, but from which general conclusions might be drawn.  That is the use of social networking sites and crowd-funding to build a name, momentum, organisation and an electoral base.  The debate about so-called 'Twitter revolutions' took a decisive turn after Gezi Park, when the centrality of Twitter in allowing groups to become informed and organised was far more significant than it had been in Egypt or Iran.  It suggested that the cyber-utopians, for all their bombast and obliviousness of the, er, 'dark side of the internet', had anticipated some real trends.  The ability of Podemos to use social media to connect to 'citizens' (its populist interpellation of choice), to develop and infrastructure through such means, signals another decisive turn in the debate.  This is where I think we have to turn to Paul Mason for guidance - the conjunction of a particular technology which encourages the formation of networks, and a particular patterns of class development (precarious workers, unemployed graduates, etc) - is potentially very powerful.  As much as I fucking hate Twitter and everyone on it ever (not you, obviously), this makes a powerful case for devoting energy and money to building up social media profiles.

That's enough of that.