July 31, 2018


Open vs Closed: The rise and fall of Left and Right (Peter Franklin, 31 JULY 2018, UnHerd)

The decline of the mainstream Left isn't just an issue for one side of the political divide. A Left incapable of making a difference to economic policy calls into question the relevance of the entire Left-Right spectrum.

A clear sign that old distinctions are collapsing is the growing ease with which parties of the mainstream Left and Right now find themselves in government together. For instance, three of the last four German governments have been 'grand coalitions' between the centre-right Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats. Since 2010, Left-Right coalitions have been formed in a number of other European countries including Italy, the Netherlands and Austria. One could argue that Emmanuel Macron's En Marche! movement is also a Left-Right coalition - albeit in the form of a new party designed for the purpose.

The old model of centre-left and centre-right alternating in government and opposition can no longer be taken for granted. Parties and politicians that were once rivals for power are increasingly likely to find themselves as partners.

There is a parallel here with the political realignment that took place at the beginning of the 20th century. A clear sign that the liberal parties of the '19th-century Left' had ceased to be the actual left was when they joined forces with their old enemies on the Right - against the rising influence of socialism.

But how exact is the parallel between what happened to '19th-century Left' and what might be happening now to the '20th-century Left'?  

Is there, for instance, an emerging '21st-century Left', capable of (a) redefining Left and Right as completely as the socialists did a hundred years ago; and (b) displacing the previous incarnation of the Left at the ballot box ?

There is, but only up to a point.

Ideologically, left-wing populist movements are good at saying what they are against (neoliberalism, etc), but not so good at articulating what they are for. There is no new 'big idea' whose impact is even remotely comparable to that of socialism in the 20th century. 

The closest it gets are the 'post-work' ideas6 of the accelerationists and others. However, 'post-workism' is a response to economic conditions that don't exist yet i.e. a super-productive economy in which human workers are largely replaced by robots. The socialism of the late 19th was able to flourish in the 20th because it was a response to economic conditions that most people experienced in their daily lives. Furthermore, the socialist parties of the era - whether communist, democratic socialist or social democrat - offered not just a protest against those conditions, but also a means of changing them.

Protest can still make an impact at the ballot box, of course. In countries across Europe, there's no doubt that the populist Left has taken votes away from the mainstream left.

And yet the radical Left is not the only, or even the biggest, threat to the mainstream Left. In many countries, the most shattering blow to the latter's voter base has come from populists who don't belong to any kind of Left: a far from exhaustive list includes UKIP in the UK, the National Front in France, the AfD in Germany, the Five Star Movement and the League in Italy, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, the Danish People's Party in Denmark, the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria and, of course, the 'alt-right' and the wider Trump phenomenon in America.

With the exception of Five Star, these movements are usually classified as 'right-wing populists'. 

They are certainly populist in the sense of being anti-establishment, but in what what sense are they right-wing? In terms of the economic issues that are most definitive of the conventional left-right political spectrum, parties of the 'populist Right' are generally to the Left of the mainstream Right and often to the left of the mainstream Left too.

Posted by at July 31, 2018 4:32 AM


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