It is, largely, religiously tolerant even as conservative Muslim communities emerge within Europe. Its defining challenge is climate change—a priority that the older generation neglected. It has witnessed the Bush era, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and now the wave of refugees from these zones. Europe's new generation does not believe that the United States is the world's natural leader. It has suffered rising inequality, lived through the financial crisis, and does not believe that markets are magical. Its economic experience is of stagnation, decay, precarity, austerity, and unemployment.
Yesterday's modernity of flexibility, entrepreneurship, and globalization no longer seems attractive. The divide between the center- and radical left is reflected in different political languages. Trade agreements are a point of rupture; the fate of Palestine is another. These are battle lines; the differences are irreconcilable and so the struggle is necessarily over control. In Britain, leadership of the radical forces fell, more or less by accident, to a mild-mannered backbencher of the old New Left, rooted in the politics of the s. In Spain, an even younger political science professor.
In Italy, a comedian. So there is a second problem for the established politicians: In no case does the direction of the radical left spring from their own class and social circles.
The radicals are therefore, for them, an existential threat. Geographic and institutional dimensions complete the divide. The radical left emerged as a serious force first in Greece, then Spain, Portugal, and Italy—the crisis-ridden European South. It has a base in certain municipal governments, including Barcelona, Naples, Turin, and now Rome. The center-left is entrenched at Westminster, in Paris, and in Berlin where it is in grand coalition with the conservatives, and above all in Brussels. And from Brussels especially it can help wage transnational campaigns against the radical movements.
In the collapse of the Greek economy brought a radical-left government to power for the first time. That government had a program, the Greek people knew what it was, and in the first months SYRIZA, which had won only about 35 percent of the vote, enjoyed approval ratings in the range of 80 percent. The program itself was moderate, thoroughly capitalist, and sought only to alter certain policies, imposed by the European institutions and the IMF, that had clearly proved dysfunctional and destructive in their operation in Greece.
But the Greeks could muster no support from the center-left in power in Italy, Germany, or France. And the European Central Bank was deployed to squeeze the Greek economy, by threatening to crash the Greek banks—a threat delivered personally in Athens in late January by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the socialist finance minister of Holland and president of the Eurogroup, the assembly of Eurozone finance ministers.
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In July the Greek government capitulated, placing the country's economic policies entirely in the hands of its creditors, where it remains—a policy of liquidation, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and fire-sale privatizations, including of the magnificent Greek seashore, hitherto a public asset. In a particular humiliation, the creditors get to nominate the chair of the privatizations commission. The clear intent of this policy is to subjugate the Greeks and to intimidate voters elsewhere, including Spain and Portugal.
That effort did not work, as broadly, the radicals in Southern Europe continued to rise through the elections in Portugal, Spain, and Italy.
About the Author
Seymour Martin Lipset suggested that the greatest achievement of the left had been the lifting of the working class away from authoritarianism and towards cosmopolitanism espoused by left-wing intellectuals. First, the emancipation of the working class — primarily the extension of access to higher education — changed the working class and its dependence on left-wing subcultures and organisations. Having lived in Gothenburg, Sweden, the home of the Volvo, I eagerly visited the Volvo factory, looking forward to meeting the contemporary proletariat.
What did I see? Halls and halls of conveyor belts shuffling skeletons that would become fancy SUVs in about an hour, while silver robotic arms added various parts to them. And the working class? I saw precious few of them.
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They were mostly young women, sitting on comfortable chairs surrounded by computer screens and keyboards, listening to their iPods… I later learned that these workers earn as much as Swedish university professors that means — a lot. The traditional working class as we imagine it from the times of Henry Ford does not exist anymore.
Most of the workers at Volvo with their above-average pay, comfort and job security can hardly be considered as such. Often, their jobs are short-term or part-time, and low-paying. These people do not come into contact with each other nearly as much as the traditional factory-floor workers did. They are more often than not from diverse minority backgrounds, and thus are separated by cultural boundaries. In short, these people have significantly reduced ability to organise, and they do not.
As my research with Allison Rovny shows, their political belonging is weak, and — in the absence of a formative subculture — it is malleable. The extension of access to higher education has increased the individual ability of people to process more complex information and make their own choices.
As education also brings better jobs, this process has created more cognitively and financially independent citizens. The generation opted for more socially liberal and less hierarchical politics, forming new social movements and later political parties that espoused left-wing economics, but that were defined by their social and cultural openness. In the context of the changing working class and the developing political supply, the traditional left parties became parties of the new middle class — primarily of the increasing numbers of white-collar state employees.
The salience of this left and traditionalist political space, vacated by the mainstream left parties, would be boosted by another important structural development — the growth of transnational exchange. The fall of the Berlin Wall in was a symbolic milestone, opening not just communist eastern Europe, but the entire developed world up to increased international exchange. My ongoing research with Gary Marks, Liesbet Hooghe and David Attewell shows that the three decades since have witnessed significant liberalisation of international trade, expressed in the formation of the WTO, and in the deepening of European integration , which has always practically centred around the free flow of goods, capital and people.
The rise of transnationalism — of extensive cross-border flows of goods, services, money and people — is firstly an economic phenomenon. It replaces domestic products and labourers with cheaper foreign alternatives. Transnationalism thus divides society into those who, while happily consuming cheaper products, earn their income in either sheltered public or internationally competitive sectors on the one hand, and those, on the other hand, whose livelihood is threatened by foreign competition in the form of imported products, and imported labourers.
Transnationalism thus creates economic winners and losers , who are increasingly keenly aware of their status in our globalised societies. Transnationalism is, however, also a cultural phenomenon. While the privileged enjoy cross-border travel for business and pleasure on an unparalleled scale, they gain experiences, learn languages, build friendships and, on occasion, have found families across borders and cultures; those with limited financial, and educational means live in a world defined by national boundaries, customs, and language.
The Future of the Left in Europe
The inflow of culturally distinct migrants into urban centres furthers this alienation. This opens a cultural chasm between the transnational cosmopolitans, concentrating in larger cities that increasingly embrace pluri-culturalism, and national traditionalists mostly present in smaller, peripheral localities, fearful of immigrants, and sceptical of their immigrant-accepting cosmopolitan co-nationals.
Transnationalism redefines the political space by dissociating economic progressivism from socio-cultural openness. Transnationalism associates cosmopolitanism with open economic exchange on the one side, and national traditionalism with economic protectionism on the other. In doing so, transnationalism effectively shatters the old electoral coalition of the left.
The naturally protectionist workers are pulled away from the naturally cosmopolitan intellectuals. Transnationalism also increases the salience of populist anti-elitism, as rural traditionalists feel unrepresented by, shunned by, and distinct from the largely urban, cosmopolitan elite. The populist radical right has been around for a good while. In Norway the workers party AP significantly recovered from its decline at the start of the millenium.
The Future of the Left in Europe
In , the AP lost more than ten points, winning only It was afterwards able to balance out those losses by shifting to the left. Since the vote, however, it has gone into reverse once again, winning While it is still the strongest party, the country is now governed by a conservative coalition. Until recently in the UK , the Labour Party was following the same downward trend, losing ten percentage points between and But Labour was able to recoup its losses in last year's general election and clearly profited from the consequences of the Brexit vote earlier in the year.
In every country there are of course differing, individual reasons for this development. But there are also common roots that can explain the crisis faced by socialists and social democrats in many countries. First, parties have lost many of their core voters. European social democracy, born out of the labour movement of the nineteenth century, had a large support base upon which it could rely for votes: It is now an ever shrinking demography: Industrial jobs are being made superfluous by new technologies or are moving to countries with lower wages.
High earning permanent staff work alongside wage workers, who often do the same tasks but receive less money for them. In Germany, the share of traditional workers fell in the last 50 years from half the workforce to barely a quarter.
And surveys carried out after elections illustrate that the remaining workers no longer only vote for the social democrats. Second, in the past couple of decades, parties on the political fringes of many countries have emerged or have won approval. Socialist and populist left-wing parties have been able to win over voters who earlier voted for the social democrats.