Playing Defense: Tribulations of the Left

Europe. American progressives have, for years, hailed the continent as an icon of social progress. Europe, to us, represents visionary governance, an image of what public sectors can do to alleviate the worst afflictions of modern society: hunger, poverty, inequality, and illness. Universal healthcare, free tertiary education and generous social safety nets constitute the tools of this Social Democratic project, tools many American Progressives have struggled to import. 

The admiration is so deep that the quip, “I’d be a conservative in Europe,” is chanted wistfully even on the most liberal of American campuses. And it’s not without some truth. The line between the right and left in Europe, to the advantage of working people across the continent, isn’t demarcated over the existence of a welfare state. But American activists need to be increasingly cautious about any identification or praise for European political parties, even those on the left. For all their achievements, these parties are slowly walking away from the very institutions that made them so alluring. 

Austerity measures are cutting welfare payments, restructuring pensions, reducing public sector employment, slashing wages, and curbing investments in infrastructure. Despite the competition between traditional center left and right parties, both sides have generally continued this trend. The British Labor Party is arguing internally over whether it should agree to welfare caps imposed by its Conservative rivals. Francois Hollande’s French Socialists have suffered their own internal divisions over spending cuts. Germany’s SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel, strongly blasted Greeks for voting against European Bailout Provisions (containing required austerity measures). Even the Greek radical left government of Alexis Tsipras seemingly betrayed its own heritage as an anti-austerity movement when it finally agreed to the humiliating bailout deal. 

That the right in Europe would advocate scaling back Social Democratic structures is easy to understand. The rising influence of free-market economics laid the blame for sclerotic growth squarely at the feet of the supposedly inefficient public sector. Center-right parties, with their inevitable friendliness to business, easily took up the mantle of promoting efficiency and competitiveness. But why the left would advocate similar policies is harder to fathom. It has partly to do with the fact that the influence of free market orthodoxy affected social democratic parties too, hence the rise of third way movements represented by politicians like Manuel Valls or Tony Blair who argue that moving to the center is critical to winning elections. But the dual combination of the Eurozone Crisis and the Great Recession played an even larger role. Even as they came to power opposing austerity measures, center left parties felt obliged to implement less stringent measures anyway. The argument, often dubbed by economists as TINA (There is No Alternative), is a powerful one precisely because it holds true for countries who want to stay in the Euro but can’t possibly convince Brussels and Berlin to push the kind of fiscal union necessary to make it work. 

So the mainstream European left is stuck. It’s witnessing seventy years worth of policy achievements being whittled away. But the best it can argue with its electorates is that it represents a supposedly ‘kinder’ way of implementing austerity. It won’t (or can’t) argue for policies like increased fiscal stimulus, jobs programs, or even more robust welfare. Whether these parties were forced into this position or not is moot. Their actions are affecting the electoral vitality  of the European left. Francois Hollande, the Socialist French President, is extremely unpopular. The British Labor Party just received a sound drubbing this past May. And the Syriza Coalition may just fracture or disappear as the Greek PASOK party did three years back. This trend isn’t limited to Europe. Center left parties in Canada, Australia, and even Israel haven’t been doing well at the polls precisely because they haven’t been presenting major alternatives to current economic policy. 

The lessons for the United States are indicative. The Democratic Party, especially at the state level, is struggling to defend welfare systems against public spending cuts. In many cases, it’s actively implementing them. In the long term, especially if party activists truly hope to import the best that Social Democratic policies have to offer (and its debatable if they do), this is a flawed strategy. There’s a limit to arguing that defending the public sector as a positive force is best achieved by cutting its funding and staff. Europe is actively playing host to those limitations now with catastrophic results for its economy and integration efforts.

The answer, both for Europe’s future and our own, is for the left to actively tackle the orthodoxies that plague centrist politics and to seriously promote the very programs it has long dreamed of and, in Europe’s case, actually achieved. For them, it would mean renewed efforts to repair damaged social safety nets, completely reversing austerity, and refusing to accept a Eurozone without the fiscal transfers to make it work (backed by a willingness to leave the currency if need be). For us in America, rejecting the triangulation of the Clinton era must go hand in hand with energetically supporting and pushing for measures like the restoration of Glass Steagall, single payer, free tertiary education. 

The short lesson is this. To have any chance of achieving one’s political desires, one’s views must at least exist in Justice William O’Douglas’ “marketplace of ideas.” We are at a point in history where the market is ready to hear these ideas and to take them in; we must oblige. The alternative is a social democratic movement permanently on the defensive and, inevitably, on the decline. 



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