François Hollande, elected to the presidency of France on May 6, was the first candidate of the Socialist Party to win that post in 24 years. And the Greek electorate dealt a crushing blow to the conservative New Democracy Party as well as the social democratic PASOK. A party to its left, SYRIZA, which opposes the agreement to restructure Greece’s sovereign debt and the associated austerity measures, came in second to New Democracy in the election, and is now trying to put together a coalition government after New Democracy was unable to do so.
These developments may seem to be indicative of a shift to the left, but they are not. We need to be oppressively aware of the upsurge in popularity that the racist right-wing and even fascists are enjoying. In a press release that accompanied its annual report, which came out last week, the Council of Europe’s Commission Against Racism and Intolerance noted, “Welfare cuts, diminished job opportunities and a consequent rise in intolerance towards both immigrant groups and older historical minorities are worrying trends …. Xenophobic rhetoric is now part of mainstream debate.” Only a couple of weeks ago, Marine Le Pen of the National Front received 18% of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election, which is more than was ever received by her infamous father whose mantle she inherited. In Greece, the far-right nationalist, authoritarian Golden Dawn organization, which wants to expel both documented and undocumented immigrants, received 7% of the vote. And in the Netherlands, the government collapsed on April 23 when the rightist, nationalist Freedom Party, the third-largest party in parliament, withdrew its support.
What is taking place cannot be accurately characterized in left/right terms. Rather, what is happening now is a continuation of what has been happening ever since the economic crisis erupted: “the bastards”––incumbents––are being thrown out, and replaced with new ones. In the U.S., the presidency switched from Republican to Democratic in the election of 2008, while in the U.K., the Tories defeated the incumbent Labour government in 2010. And much more profound changes have of course been rocking the Arab world.
People the world over want the economic problems to go away. If those in power can’t make the problems go away, then they want to get rid of them. A lot of people probably hope that those who replace them will solve the problems; in any case, they don’t want to reward failure.
We are likely to see more and more of this political turmoil––including more and more of a turn toward fascism along with a turn to everything else. It is likely to continue as long as the economic malaise that the world is experiencing continues. As Michael Roberts pointed out last week, “In many economies, the previous peak in output before the slump has not been surpassed. Only the GDPs of North America and Germany have achieved that. The rest of Europe and Japan are still in a slough of despond some four years since the Great Recession began.” There are no quick fixes for this malaise, and there is extremely little that different economic policies can do to improve the situation––though some policies can certainly make things even worse than they are.
Meanwhile, some parts of the Marxist and non-Marxist left continue to respond to this situation by pretending that there is no real economic crisis, just a crisis of distribution. For instance, Naomi Klein told Amy Goodman, “America is not broke; it has a redistribution crisis. … we know where the money is bottlenecked: it’s bottlenecked at the Pentagon, and it’s bottlenecked on Wall Street.” But if the left wants to stem the march of the far right, it had better get serious about working out what people the world over want and are calling for–an alternative that will actually solve the whole mess. And the first step needed to solve the mess is to admit that it exists, and that it is the result of decades of low profitability, sluggish growth, and rising debt, not bottlenecked money. This is not the time for empty promises that everything would be fine if we only redistributed the deck chairs on the Titanic.