Screenshot: Progressive International: a grassroots movement. DiEM25. YouTube.
Not just in the West, but all over the world, from India to Brazil, Mexico to Turkey, the political ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are going through significant transformations. In general, both wings are becoming more polarised and radical, also as a consequence of an unbridled globalisation and issues such as inequality and job insecurity. However, the ‘Right’ seems to have more rapidly adapted to the new age and found some kind of new form, while the ‘Left’ is still facing big uncertainties, in Europe and beyond. The ‘Left’ is still facing big uncertainties, in Europe and beyond.
Identifying the new faces and concerns of the contemporary Right might seem easy. One thinks of Trump, Marine Le Pen, Salvini, Orban, Bolsonaro, Modi, and many other leaders who are usually associated with nationalism, economic protectionism, rejection of globalisation and international institutions (especially the EU!), focus on law, order, and anti-migration policies, populist tones, and the like.
Yet the reality of these new forces is more complex. Nationalism is the common denominator of movements which otherwise can be quite different. Trump, Bolsonaro or the UK Independence Party, for example, are clearly more pro-market than the National Front or Italy’s League. The National Front tends to be popular among younger voters, while Trump and UKIP have been more successful among a senior electorate. Moreover, the emerging Right often draws on ideas and policies proposed by its predecessors, which it mixes into new and sometimes opportunist combinations. Euroscepticism and nationalism were after all a key part of Mrs Thatcher’s worldview, while protectionism was deployed by President Reagan against Japan in the 1980s and G.W. Bush on European steel in the early 2000s.
Populist rhetoric has well-known precedents in Italy’s long-time tycoon-premier Silvio Berlusconi or even in Reagan’s appeals to economic freedoms and anti-communism. In other words, there is some continuity between the more traditional Right of the 1980s-2000s and the more aggressive, radical, extremist one of the latest years.
The latter is nurtured by an economic insecurity that has been triggered by decades of neoliberal policies and has sidelined the more traditional Right of the upper-middle classes, which is on the retreat in many countries. In the last Italian polls, for example, Berlusconi’s revamped Forza Italia did not achieve more than 14% - 3.4% less than the League. The French Republicans, heir to Gaullism, were outvoted by Le Pen in the presidential elections and lost 82 seats in parliament. Even the once almighty CDU-CSU in Germany is facing the pressure of Alternative for Germany, which in 2018 did well in elections in Bavaria and Hesse, after gaining 94 Bundestag seats in 2017.
The pendulum of centre-right politics is clearly swinging to the right, in a centrifugal direction. Yet it remains to be seen how the new forces can co-exist, especially at the European level. Despite claims about a rising ‘illiberal international’, Salvini and Austria’s right-wing Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, have already been at loggerheads. After all, how can nationalisms easily co-exist? After all, how can nationalisms easily co-exist?
Tensions and uncertainties, however, are much bigger on the Left. Traditional social democratic parties, widely seen as promoters of globalisation, neoliberalism, precarious employment and job insecurity since the 1990s and the Third Way’s unfulfilled promises, are facing hard times.
In 2017 Germany’s SPD ended with its worst election result since World War Two, and in Bavaria it was just the fifth most voted party in 2018, with less than half of the votes obtained five years earlier. As to the French Socialists, in five years they lost 249 of the 279 seats they had obtained in the National Assembly in 2012. Sweden’s Social Democrats have to go back to 1908 to find a worse result than the 28.3% of the votes received in last year’s national elections. What can the Left do to turn such a tide?
One possibility is to go ‘populist’, following the lead of Spain’s Podemos, the French alliance supporting Melenchon (La France Insoumise) or the German Greens in 2018. All these groups have scored well in the latest elections and demonstrated the importance of direct and inclusive communication to ‘ordinary people’ and particularly those feeling ‘left behind’ by globalisation’s ruthless dynamics.
This is a key point, but is it enough to represent the way forward? One limit of the leftist ‘populism’ has often been the lack of common positions on international aspects. While the German Greens have usually been pro-European, for example, the Nordic Green is traditionally Eurosceptic, and La France Insoumise has to negotiate its way among a variety of views. In a world of growing international tensions and rising challenges to the western liberal order (especially China’s and other powers’ rise), the ‘international’ dimension deserves deeper attention.
At the same time, the persistence of neoliberal discipline calls for a stronger focus on social and economic rights, and the value of human labour. Issues of identity, gender, ecology have to be complemented by a renewed focus on labour, as has been proposed by the likes of Corbyn and Sanders. Where privatisations have failed (think about infrastructures all over Europe, from Britain’s railways to Italy’s motorways), citizens should take control back. Left-wing parties should also re-emphasise a well-rounded political education in both theory and practice, combining ‘high politics’ and ‘street politics’, the social media and actually meeting people from all walks of life.
Furthermore, the Left should re-emphasise the importance of supranationalism, particularly in Europe. Nation-states have long lost power, but very little has been done at the European level; if anything, the EU has become more and more subservient to the neoliberal paradigm. And yet only a truly European state could enact significant social legislation. In addition, European integration was often thought of and can still be a true example of multicultural co-existence. It might be late, but European federalism should return to the agenda, and as a leftist proposal.
In 2019 many elections will take place – for the EU Parliament and some European countries but also in Canada, India, Indonesia, among others. Against a rapidly rising new ‘Right’, somewhat eclectic but better-defined, the ‘Left’ will stand a chance if it relaunches an agenda of social rights and supranationalism. After all, they are the most logical responses to neoliberalism and nationalism – the two crucial problems of the latest decades.