The left needs to dispel Europe’s political depression before it can tackle the economic gloom.
Europe seems to be in the grip of a political depression every bit as deep as the economic one. Spinoza wrote that we feel depressed when we are cut off from our power to act. Faced with the economic depression (let’s call it what it is), Europeans seems to be suffering just such a collapse in will brought about by utter hopelessness. The British pollster Peter Kellner said recently that politicians need to find ‘a narrative to dispel the gloom’. This is exactly what ‘talking therapies’ aim to do for people suffering from depression. But if it’s hard to find that narrative for an individual, it’s harder still for a whole nation or even a whole civilisation.
One reason the European left hasn’t done very well out of the global economic crisis is that many voters don’t believe politicians can to do anything at all to end the slump, or even to protect the gains working people have made in the last one hundred years or so. The left runs on hope and there isn’t much hope about.
Kellner was commenting on a recent poll in Britain which found that most voters didn’t believe there was anything politicians could do to restore living standards to pre-crash levels anytime soon. Even among Labour party voters, only 56% thought there was anything to be done. The same fatalism seems to lie behind the vertiginous collapse in support for François Hollande’s socialist government in France. Most French people seem to believe that the President’s widely derided ‘toolbox’ for dealing with the crisis is empty, and probably always was (of course there is a small but vocal minority who claim he is the willing stooge of international capitalism, but in France there always is). But the mainstream centre-right UMP (Sarkozy’s party) remains in disarray and the main beneficiary has been Marine Le Pen’s Front National.
Note: the Front National not the Front de Gauche. The surge in support for so-called ‘anti-politics’ parties – the FN, UKIP in Britain, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement in Italy and Golden Dawn in Greece – is largely confined to those on the right. On the ‘alternative’ left, nothing stirs. But if this is rage, it feels like an impotent rage – one of Spinoza’s ‘sad passions’. I doubt even supporters of these parties have much real confidence in them as potential governments. Grillo certainly made an electoral breakthrough, but then ran away from the responsibilities of power. And how many people who will vote for UKIP in Thursday’s local elections in the UK can put their hand on their heart and say that a lot more Thatcherism and flouncing out of the EU will deliver jobs and growth? Really?
So, if I cannot solve my problems and they cannot solve them for me, perhaps we can solve our problems together. This idea used to be called ‘solidarity’ (fraternité in France – one of the three founding principles of the 1789 revolution, and the most overlooked). But solidarity has been largely slung out of the left’s toolbox. The traditional channels for expressing solidarity and applying collective pressure for change were mostly closed off even before the crisis began: street protests are often seen as a waste of time (democratic governments make it a virility test not to give in to such protests); trade unions are weak and often discredited, and their traditional weapon – strikes – are almost useless in a depression; and there are no credible revolutionary movements to force governments into offering radical but democratic change.
If there is a ray of hope to pierce the gloom it might come from the example of the indignados movement in Spain, which mixes local grass-roots activism – for example, helping impoverished families fight evictions – with imaginative direct action protests, such as noisy demonstrations outside ministers’ homes. These kinds of social movements, which might also include co-operatives, credit unions and the like – have more practical appeal than fuzzy movements like Occupy and pack more political punch than charities. They offer collective action and individual help with specific problems. There is a ‘narrative’ that most people can relate to.
The conventional left has always been a bit sniffy about anything too ‘grass roots’ or smacking of ‘self-help’, often preferring to operate at the systemic or theoretical level (or even sometimes to not operate at all). But we should remember this is exactly how trade unions and organised left got started in Europe in the first place.