Can Europe Make It?

The rising precariat and left-transformation: an examination of the Five Star Movement and Corbyn’s Labour Party

Corbyn’s Labour like the Five Star Movement has adopted a policy agenda based on political and social justice.

Seren Selvin Korkmaz Alphan Telek
2 April 2018


Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement, speaks in the Sports Hall in Pomigliano, Italy on February 12, 2018 during the March 4, 2018 election tour. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.

In the post-1980 period, the unbounded commodification and dominance of plutocracy has been deepened by neoliberalism, creating deeply insecure relations throughout our economies, while identity politics has polarized our societies.

Both have precipitated the collapse of social solidarity. Now, people are more vulnerable in their daily lives and they are fearful about their prospects. We believe this is a life-style that many people from different geographies spontaneously experience, a common sense whose main motto is “we do not have a future”.

In this vacuum, populist leaders and the radical right fill the political gap by manipulating and pumping up the racism, hatred and anger in the society. Given the lack of a systemic solution, the source of inequality and poverty is invariably attributed by populist demagogues to the “Other” such as migrants, religious and ethnic minorities or intellectuals.

However, this same world has given birth to counter movements, which we may call left-transformative movements, based on a politics of hope and justice and bringing class politics back into the political arena to expose the real origin of these inequalities and injustices.

These left-transformative movements in terms of their agendas and political strategies propose structural transformations that could change the everyday lives of people and strengthen them in the political, economic and social spheres. They also use new political campaigning and participation methods rather than standard, old-fashioned techniques.

We compare two rising left-transformative movements, Five Star Movement in Italy and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the UK Labour Party, to explore this combination of new techniques with a progressive political agenda and the potential it creates for left-transformation. However, there are more than these two movements: Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders in USA, radical youth in German Social Democrat Party, Razem in Poland, La France Insoumise in France, Diem25 as led by Yanis Varoufakis in the EU, recent social explosions in Tunisia and Iran ­– all indicate an opening for the theory of left-transformation.

An agenda for a new class with new methods

The theory of left-transformation depends on a politics that promises political and social justice. It does not separate political participation and freedoms from social equality and economic securities. It should be underlined that this ‘justice politics’ does not depend on a pre-determined pecking order between political and social justice. The priority will shift according to contextual necessities.

Sometimes, as in China or Turkey, the contextual situation of a country requires that political justice is a priority. However, social justice is a more acute priority for the French or Spanish precariat, since they have fewer problems with the issues of political justice.

The precariat, who have experienced social suffering due to these common phenomena, gives birth to a new political idea: left-transformation. These movements arise and make their claims on political justice by demanding political participation in decision-making processes, to render the process accountable, and at the same time to protect it from corrupt relations with the plutocracy and financial institutions.

Furthermore, these movements by emphasizing social justice demand decent economic livelihoods and promise people socio-economic security. Of course this requires a global transformation of market structures as well as a whole overhaul of political structures. That is why we argue for left-transformation, meaning not piecemeal change but a total change of the social, political and economic landscape.

It may sound utopian, actually it is. However, the current conditions of the world prepare the ground for this political idea. Like every other progressive thought and action, it needs solidarity both at national and the international level. The common life-style of the precariat crosses the borders among different races, religions, nations and cultures. We will elaborate two of them here: the Five Star Movement and Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Five Star Movement

The Five Star Movement was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009. In a short period of time, it won support among large segments of the Italian precariat, mainly made up of young people working without secure and stable lives. The movement got 26% of the votes in the 2013 Italian general elections. In the recent elections held in this month, it got 32% of the votes and it is now the strongest party negotiating the governing coalition. Though the movement asserts that it is neither left nor right in the political spectrum, its political programme is based on anti-austerity measures, support for socio-economic security and the demand for political participation in decision-making processes through new methods.

As explained above, the Five Star Movement displays the basic characteristics of left-transformation movements: promising social and political justice for an Italian precariat and using hope as the milestone of its political programme and actions. In terms of political justice, the movement totally rejects the exclusionary mechanisms of bogus-democracies that exclude people from decision-making processes affecting their whole daily lives. By the same gesture, it rejects the establishment parties and its political elites because the Five Star Movement and its supporters do not think these represent the people.

Moreover, rather than representation, the movement underlines the importance of participatory democracy. However, by this it does not mean that the idea of representation is left to the establishment parties. Rather, the movement foresees a hybrid adoption of both representative and participatory democracy. To that end, the Five Star Movement has for a long time been using both cyber-space and urban space (city squares) to create a new political agency. This point is significant, since a transformative movement needs to take advantage of cyber-space to spread its programme, ideas, and promises to those parts of the precariat who live in different and remote parts of the country.

However, cyber-space activism is not enough for a transformative movement to increase its power: it needs real spaces like city squares to establish and shape solidarity among the precariat. City squares increase the class-consciousness of the precariat because they open up access to long discussions of the problems they have in common and a common life-style that they share: they start to know each other in these spaces.

The Five Star Movement uses this hybrid model. They have enlarged their support among Italian people by using cyber-space tools such as viral videos, blogs, social media activism, using apps to consult their supporters about local and national issues, launching referendums through apps. They have complemented this with V-days (vaffakulo days) by regularly holding assemblies in city squares. The fusion of cyber and real spaces launches these transformative movements.

The new participatory logic and its mechanisms creates its own forms of political justice. However, the issues of social justice matter more for transformative movements, since their supporters demands social justice: more socio-economic security, more social rights, democracy at the workplace, a secure and honorable life that permit the precariat to take breath in their lives without obsessing about their futures.

This is the imperative behind the Five Star Movement’s anti-austerity economic programme, constructed around these demands. It especially promises to stand up against those EU reforms that cut social rights and social spending in a way that badly affects the Italian people. The movement has also put forward the concept of degrowth instead of economic growth. One of the main promises of neoliberalism and liberal democracies has been high growth rates along with new jobs and social relief. However, these undertakings remain unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, the Five Star Movement promises a universal basic income to every citizen of Italy. Given the unfair relations of distribution, the precariat depends solely on money-wages. It cannot perceive any exit strategy from this dependency, any future alternative plan, and is forced to bow its head in front of the bosses in the workplace. That is why it has to behave like a beggar as Guy Standing put it.[i] But a basic income promises a new socio-economic tool that can sustain the sphere for social justice. This makes the Five Star Movement a real star among the younger members of Italian society. When examined, it can be seen that the movement gets much of its votes from the regions where most of Italy’s under-30’s live.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party

Does left-transformation need totally new political organizations, or is it possible to create change from within existing parties or movements. While the left-transformative Five Star Movement refuses to become involved with established parties and tried to adopt a new form, Corbyn pursues a transformative agenda within the British Labour Party.

Either scenario is possible, depending on the economic, political and social conditions of specific countries. Corbyn’s leadership in the Labour Party mobilized the party by ensuring huge participation to the party and empowering its grassroots organizations. The Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership has caught the imagination of the precariat. This is because Corbyn’s left-transformative agenda promises a just society at the same time that it uses new methods and a new style of organization in his campaign.

Corbyn’s Labour like the Five Star Movement has adopted a policy agenda based on political and social justice. This leftist agenda and Corbyn’s charisma makes the Labour Party a vanguard for change in the UK rather than a party preserving the status quo. Corbyn’s leadership has mutually complementary relations with Momentum, which emerged after Corbyn’s candidacy to support his leadership as an independent grassroots movement and later joined the party.

Momentum created a political space for people who were not interested in mainstream politics and specifically young people. They use cyberspace very actively by creating viral videos, graphics, and social media messages. In addition they ensure active participation and easy communication by deploying special mobile apps. Volunteer software developers and graphic designers have worked for the movement.

Momentum also uses new types of political event. For instance, “The World Transformed” has created an arts, music and design festival to attract people outside the political bubble. The Labour Party has also begun to organize festivals as a form of political event rather than classic party meetings. Corbyn himself is actively using cyberspace and coming together with ordinary people by knocking on their doors or organizing meetings with them specifically to listen to their everyday problems.

Corbyn has set up a community campaign unit, which will work with communities and groups of employees to support them in campaigning on local and workplace issues.[iv] Corbyn believes that working with community groups can make it easier for ordinary people to engage in grassroots politics and that this will strengthen the left in the UK.

In the UK social justice is the main concern of the precariat. Although social justice is a dominant part of Corbyn’s programme, there are certain suggestions that will increase the participation of citizens in the decision-making process in local governance, and he suggests the elimination of rent-seeking urbanization at the local level. His programme is based on the ideal of an inclusive society that promises to combat anti-semitism, Islamophobia and hatred towards migrants. Corbyn as a left-transformative leader seeks a just society.

According to Corbyn, the United Kingdom as one of the wealthiest countries in the world should not have such a problem with poverty and homelessness. His programme offers housing support and tuition-free higher education. In addition Corbyn highlights the low-paid insecure jobs and advocates financial reform to benefit the public sphere and create secure employment opportunities. He also suggests tax reform. He also suggests state control in the production and redistribution of basic needs such as energy, transportation and water.

To sum up, the world is in a systemic crisis, the kind that necessitates a profound transformation. This period of time has given birth to both populists and left-transformation movements. The first, using the fear and anger of the people directs these means to provoking more racism and more polarization in society as well as deepening economic inequalities and insecurities. On the other hand, a new idea is haunting the world, which promises a quite different future, a new solidarity that can provide the much desired sense of future and hope: the theory of left-transformation. Today, we have emerging left-transformative movements around the world that bring a new kind of class politics onto the political agenda. Their programmes might be mistakenly deemed utopian and populist. But we believe that left-transformation can be achieved through national and international solidarity.

[i] Guy Standing, The Precariat and Class Struggle

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