In Need of a New Left

Europe’s Far-Right Drift

The far right is like the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything to stop it.

The new normal. Nizza Millefonti, Torino.

The prospect of doing anything seems even more remote, given that the left appears to have only the vaguest understanding of what it opposes.

There is every indication that the far right will win a historic victory in France today, thanks in no small part to more than a decade of tail-chasing by the left.

The United States seems likely to get another dose of Donald Trump in November, a prospect even more alarming by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that a president is immune from legal prosecution for acts undertaken during official duties.

Despite having defeated the Tories, Labour’s victory in the British election was dimmed by the resurgence of the far right (in the form of Nigel Farage’s Reform UK Party) and because, under the leadership of Keir Starmer, Labour rebranded itself as a party of the centre right.

These developments are taking place against the backdrop of significant gains by far right parties in the European parliamentary elections.

Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) polled the highest of Italy’s parties in the European elections with 28% of the vote, helping propel the Meloni-led European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) to the number three spot in the European Parliament.

Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) scored a parallel victory in France, with 31.5%, while Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) came in second, just behind Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen’s Christian Democrats (CDU), with 16% of the German vote.

Though this wasn’t a victory for the far right, the German and French results are frightening, historically and regarding the countries’ roles in the European Union. The RN and AfD are Eurosceptic, anti-democratic, racist parties.

There are many reasons why the left has found itself incapable of mounting effective resistance to this general tide. Foremost among them is the wide variety of modern political narratives and motivations that have given rise to Europe’s far-right upsurge.

At times like this, systematic analysis often gives way to laundry lists of characteristics, and it is tempting to engage in that here.

The most important causes include the rightward shift of social democratic parties, a lack of economic growth comparable to the boom of the post-World War II decades, and the adoption of increasingly virulent xenophobic policies by parties of the middle-class right.

In the face of these (and other) challenges posed by conservatives, the left has adopted a number of more or less ineffective strategies.

The rightward lurch that has affected most European social democratic parties and the Democratic Party in the US (who were never social democrats) has posed an unpalatable quandary for people on their leftward edge: conform or break away.

To conform, always hoping for a more reasonable politics to emerge from the conclave of wonks, technocrats, and pollsters running formerly social democratic parties in Europe requires collaboration with right-wing policies. To break away threatens irrelevance.

The choices in the United States are similar, differing only in that they have been the relevant options for rather longer.

Since the end of the New Deal and the presidential victories stretching from Roosevelt in 1932 to Truman in 1948, the Democratic Party has been on the back foot. The split of southern, pro-segregation Democrats in the era of George Wallace heralded the main reasons why.

Wallace ran on an unabashedly racist program. When northern Democrats refused to espouse it, southerners switched parties en masse to the Republican Party, desperate for a return to prominence and lacking in scruples concerning the tactics they were willing to employ to get it.

This, in turn, created a pattern that was imported into Europe. Social democratic parties became technocratic, using as their selling point their ability to maintain regime stability and growth on the model that had prevailed in the decades between 1950 and 1970.

This proved impossible, not least because the economic conditions that underlay it were not the result of competent management but of a conjunction of historical and economic factors unlikely to recur again for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, the xenophobic radical conservatism that had colonised the Republican Party metastasised, first to the United Kingdom and then to continental Europe.

Margaret Thatcher was an enthusiastic early adopter, grounding her neoliberal rejigging of British society on a process of negative integration demonising socialists, young people, football hooligans (whoever they might be), and non-whites.

Far-right politics in Europe are the direct descendent of this process at both ends of the ideological spectrum.

The hyping of anti-immigrant hysteria by the likes of AfD, FdI, Rassemblement National and Sweden Democrats is a modern take on the Thatcherite tactic of focusing hatred on people deemed to be outside some sort of ethno-nationalist conception of “the people”.

The goal is the same: to reach either consensus on (or acquiescence to) policies that defend the interests of certain groups irrespective of any connection between the policies and the “problems” they are meant to solve.

The divergence between the “problems” and the “solutions” is camouflaged by further helpings of hysteria about trans people, the deep state, chemtrails, and whatever else is currently banging around in the conspiracist imaginary.

On the left, the lines of development are similarly straightforward. In the US, the Democrats have sold themselves as the party of economic freedom with a human face. This has been a hard sell since hyperactive free trade hollowed out the basis of white, working-class job security.

Since then, the party has limped on, buoyed by the votes of non-whites and educated women who realise they’re likely to be better off under the Democrats than the unapologetically racist and natalist Republicans.

While Thatcher was busy selling off the national patrimony and promoting the short, sharp shock, Labour was busy clearing the decks by evicting the Militant Tendency and then, over the next two decades, most of the other identifiably leftist groups and minorities within the party.

A similar process can be seen in most of the major industrialised states of Europe. The end of the postwar boom resulted in the end of stable, well-paid employment for less educated (and sometimes more educated) whites.

Established social democratic parties responded by chasing the chimaera of a return to the old model or by touting the benefits of greater competitiveness.

Neither strategy was particularly effective, and the far right was able to shift blame onto non-white immigrants to the metropole driven by processes of decolonisation.

Capital increasingly accumulated at the top. Social democratic politicians contented themselves with dining at the trough of donor cash, resulting in the occasional high-profile and highly damaging corruption scandal. Qatargate, anybody?

Now we have the spectacle of American Democrats and European social democrats hawking policies that nobody in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution wants since they involve increased competition without increased payouts.

Conservatives at least have the advantage that they can point to a well-established enemy (non-whites, foreigners, LGBTQ, Islam, etc.) in their project of getting poorer people to vote against their immediate economic interests.

In the face of this, social democrats have long again given up on the kinds of redistribution that might make capitalist economies work better, with the added benefit of materially benefitting their original core constituencies.

Still, social democrats insist on doing the same thing repeatedly, hoping for different results.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.