Beyond Cologne: The death of the European Left

Approx Reading Time-14Returning from Europe, Nicholas Harrington describes a problem reanimated by the Cologne attacks – the marginalising of the political Left.


Since 2010, increasing support for the National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, UKIP in Britain, and the Progress Party in Norway have been attributed to economic austerity, the rise of Euroscepticism, and most recently the challenges of EU mandated immigration policy.

More worrisome for some is the decline of the Left. Or more specifically, the decline in liberal values espoused by ruling parties in moderate European nations such as Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and increasingly, Germany.

What the hell is going on?!

Europe has always been the go-to-guy for liberals and social democrats the world over seeking a case study. In Australia, when people whinged about high taxes and dole-bludgers we’d smugly pontificate upon the happy Danes with their top income tax rate of 56 percent and incredible social services.

You can’t do that anymore. The Danes just announced that they would tax refugees coming into their country to subsidise the cost of their stay. In Finland, asylum seekers are asked to work-off their refugee status. Hungary built a barbed wire fence on its border. Estonia built a barbed wire fence on its border. Latvia built a barbed wire fence on its border. Macedonia built a barbed wire fence on its border.

Nationalism is on the rise; Liberalism on the decline. And the Left is nowhere to be seen.

Oh, except for Jeremy Corbyn in England (but the Labour party got absolutely thrashed in the last election). And “socialist” Francois Hollande in France (but he’s a bomb-happy nationalist now). And “socialist(?!)” Alexis Tsipras in Greece (but he decided he wanted to audition for Faust so he recruited the whole country in this Goethean-style Greek tragedy).

In an effort to explain what has happened, what is happening and what might happen, to liberal values in Europe, I’m advancing a historical-systemic-cycle theory.

Some argue that liberalism is dying in Europe: that the Left is on its last legs and being trodden over by a populist conservatism that threatens its very existence. I disagree. I think we are merely in a part of the cycle that liberals don’t, won’t, and shouldn’t, like.

Ideologies attach themselves to victories and gain momentum thereby. Maybe these ideologies contributed to these successes, maybe they didn’t. It matters little that in life causation is much confused with correlation.

Your footy team gets a new coach and you start to win a few games – the guy’s a bloody genius. A couple seasons later you start to lose – let’s get rid of this bum! Who hired him anyway?!

Searching for opposites in times of distress, or a casual ideology in times of plenty, has a pervasive logic. “What was it that made stuff go so good – let’s do more of that” has an equal claim to veracity as “whatever we’re doing now isn’t working so let’s change it.”

So it was with liberalism in the post-WWII era, and again when the Berlin Wall came asunder, that allowed free transmission across Europe once more.

…I think it’s important to consider the birth of something if we are going to muse upon its death.

Post-WWII Europe saw an explosion of liberal values, student protests, progress in civil rights, universal suffrage and significant expansion of social programs. The general consensus was that post-cold war Europe was an inclusive, humanitarian, generous and optimistic landscape (or at least moving in that direction).

So what is the point, Nick? I’m getting bored. In the parlance of Monty Python, “get on with it!!

Well…after a significant geopolitical victory, the Left surged forward in the wake of this euphoria. Europe was safe once more: the triumph of good over evil. We were the good guys – we won. It was time to capitalise on this reality and do more good. Our cup runneth over – so we had plenty to share. We asked the question, “What was it that made stuff go so good? Let’s do more of that.” Liberalism, equality, optimism, joy, love, unity and brotherhood: these were the currents of the time, and the Left benefited.

So if geopolitical victory is the Left’s catnip what is its kryptonite?

The trifecta of depression, recession and economic malaise.

Ultimately, the failure of the League of Nations, the rise of fascism in Germany, Spain and Italy – the massive retreat into nationalistic conservatism – have the great depression of the late 1920s as their cause.

The same case could be made for the rise of European conservatism in the early 1980s (echoed by Reagan in the US). Thatcher articulated the siren song of the Right, something that sounds a death knell for the Left: “Pennies don’t fall from heaven, they have to be earned here on earth.”

That has always been the mantra of the Right: food first and favours later. The moderate Left looks around, rubs its belly and concedes, “Yeah, me like food too.” By degrees we dine on the force-fed, self-imposed austerity of the Right until our bellies are sufficiently full and we feel confident to reach into our pockets and retrieve spare crumbs to distribute.

And so it is in 2016.

Post-cold war European liberalism manifested into the mainstream political discourse to produce a Tony Blair victory in 1997 and a Gerhard Schröder success in 1998. Needless to say that both were a disappointment for those seeking genuine social reform – but same goes for Hollande, Tsipras, and Obama. The Northern Europeans became the bastion of social progress and institutional provision. The Left rode the wave of peace and economic progress.

(*Cue thunder*) The Global Financial Crisis.

As we left the “naughties” terms like PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) and “exits” were thrown around Europe. Populations looked for solutions in the opposites of their circumstances. If you had a Labour government when the economy started to tank, you went conservative. If you had a conservative government you tended socialist. Now we’re up to about 2012.

But things didn’t change (or didn’t change fast enough). Still desperate for a fix, Europeans began weighing their remaining options. If a change in economic management didn’t improve things – if you get the same result regardless of who pulls the levers – what else can we change?

You could change the cultural consciousness. You could hand in your liberal values. All over Europe people began to say, “maybe we’re being too nice and this niceness is basically weakness, and weakness is what hurts us.”

In a desperate need to find some ideological framework, or systemic foundation to alter, in a vainglorious attempt to gain different economic outcomes, the European consciousness stumbled upon liberalism, and considered this might have been the problem all along.

They began thinking, “When were we better off?”, “When was our country strong and proud?”. The grasping, craven mind drifted back to the aftermath of WWII and victory in the cold war. “We were strong and proud before we started handing things out and receiving humanity with open arms,” they’d say. “It was our Spartan austerity and triumphal nationalism that saved us, while providing the foundation for our previous prosperity.”

The very moments that usher in the next wave of populist liberalism are redefined in the cultural consciousness as a rallying cry for conservative nationalism.

WWII is no longer the victory of good over evil, of dark over light, of liberalism over fascism – it is the triumph of belt-tightening, of unity, of nationalism, of following orders and sticking together. We didn’t win the cold war because our pluralist and generous society is more robust and attractive, we won because we had a wall, we kept them out, and we grew stronger in the process.

The cultural consciousness cannot accept failure as any kind or normal. It needs a way out, a scapegoat, a saviour and a new pathway.

On either end of any political spectrum, you have diehard liberals and diehard conservatives. Legislation is swayed when either of these two poles captures the imagination of the fat, vacillating middle. We are not seeing the death of the Left. The Left is always there: sitting, waiting. It’s only the belly of politics that is grumbling and looking to the Right – to the hand that feeds.

So how does the Left find a way back in?

Here’s an unpopular suggestion. I don’t think the Left will take a dominant position in European politics for quite some time. Cycles take time to turn. Imagine there’s an ideological clock with 12 being Liberal/Left and 6 being Conservative/Right. My assertion is that we’re at about 3. We haven’t yet hit the nadir of liberal values in Europe. A few more Paris-style attacks or further decline in the international economy (something many economists are beginning to forecast) would certainly push us further in that direction. Why am I so pessimistic about the Left’s prospects? Because as time goes on, the emerging paradigm of conservatism and nationalism becomes the new normal. The media adjusts its voice. The parties metamorphose to reflect the changing electorate. A new breed of leaders emerge who cater to the transformed landscape, supplanting the old, who are seen as ineffective representatives of parties that now make nationalistic appeals. This evolution will continue until a significant “disruption” alters the course of events.

There are two things that can reenergise the Left. The first are significant, prolonged economic gains. The second is a major geopolitical victory (with Europe reaping the lion’s share advantage). Am I suggesting a WWII, post-cold war type event? Perhaps. Far from endorsing this scenario, I’m simply pointing out that cycles (or pendulum swings, if that’s a better metaphor) require serious historical physics to push them in another direction.

It wasn’t quick and easy to get us here – so why would it be quick and easy to go in the other direction?

Barbed wire fences, economic conservatism, austerity, anti-immigration and nationalism will become the new normal. The Left may just have to wait patiently for the change in the historical-systemic-cycle: some geopolitical or economic victory to which it can attach itself. Then it can define and determine the new, new paradigm.


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