Stockholm syndrome

What happened to the European left?

February 6, 2014 8:15AM ET
The street actions of the indignados in Spain are expressions of those who rebel against a manifestly unfair system but who are unable as yet to offer a coherent alternative.
Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

European countries are in crisis — but not just an economic one. Globalization has generated a new global class structure, with a tiny, powerful plutocracy lording it over everyone else. A shrinking “salariat” clings on to full-time employment. Below them, a swelling class of precariously employed workers, the “precariat,” flit between jobs and unemployment without any occupational identity. At the bottom is an underclass made up of the indigent, ill and damaged.

The precariat class is growing — but instead of championing their cause, the political left across Europe is failing them. And in failing the precariat, the left is failing itself.

Sweden, long regarded as the utopia of social democracy, is an unlikely player on the front line of this crisis of the left. This year, center-left parties, which include the once mighty Social Democrats, will likely find a place in Sweden’s government, not because their policies have inspired voters but by elimination: Their right-wing counterparts have been in office for nine years and are presiding over rising inequality, 8 percent unemployment, and unprecedented social tensions such as the four nights of riots, looting and arson that took place just outside Stockholm last May.

When the Social Democrats are elected, they will have to govern in coalition. They appear clueless about what they even want to achieve. The haplessness of Sweden’s left was epitomized by an article by the SD’s general secretary in December, nine months before the general election. Rather than proposing concrete policies, the SD announced they were launching a “listening campaign” to find out what the Swedish people want. That may sound democratic, but political parties should be driven by values and a desire to convince others. Instead of taking a stand, this one is asking people to tell it what to stand for. It is rather sad.

Growing social unrest

Sweden’s predicament is emblematic of growing social unrest across Europe. Inequality is rising faster there than in any other member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and if involuntary part-timers and the discouraged unemployed were included in a composite measure of labor slack, the level of labor underutilization would be at least 10 percent, much higher than the official unemployment rate. One in every four people between the ages of 16 and 24 has no job, and a rising number of young men of that age are trapped in means-tested social assistance and quietly pushed into workfare, schemes requiring them to do menial labor in return for meager benefits. Workfare is a general policy that social democrats have adopted across Europe, much to the angst of the precariat, because the forced low-paid labor is pushed on them.

Sweden is not unique in seeing its traditional left in intellectual paralysis. In September, it was the Norwegian center-left that was booted out of office, even though Norway has done relatively well economically since the 2008 global financial crash. Just before that, the German center-left dribbled into a derisory minority vote. And earlier in 2013 the Italian social democrats (PD) sold what little was left of their progressive credibility by entering a coalition with the right-wing party of a multi-convicted billionaire maverick, Silvio Berlusconi. In France, the socialist president wallows in unprecedented unpopularity, seemingly bereft of progressive ideas and beleaguered by a recent sex scandal.

The roll call of paralysis goes on, through Spain, Portugal, Greece and Bulgaria. In the U.K., the Labour Party has announced it will abide by the spending plans of the Conservative-led government and pitches its electoral hopes on a promise to deal with the cost of living better. Labour tries to appeal to a populist “squeezed middle,” as if the crushed bottom does not matter. Indeed, it deliberately sounds just as tough on the unemployed as the Conservatives do. The precariat are left out of consideration altogether.

The anger inside the precariat is simmering, and from time to time it boils over into days of rage.

The financial crash of 2008 was a failure of a market-driven economic model traditionally embraced by right-leaning politicians. This should have created inroads for the left to become stronger than ever. So why is it the left that has been losing elections, often by a wide margin, rather than its conservative counterparts?

One reason is that social-democratic parties made a historical compromise in the 1990s in a bid to be electable, appealing to what they perceived as “the middle class” and all but ignoring the lower classes in their electoral calculus. But there is something even bleaker about the defeats of the left: Its parties have failed to offer a sense of future.

Traumatized by the overwhelming influence of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, these parties resorted to “third way” buzzwords invented by consultants in think tanks. Not only are we told to support the “squeezed middle,” it’s also recommended that we favor “predistribution” — but what does that even mean? This vague PR-speak revealed these parties’ lack of any substantive vision of a good society. Barack Obama briefly beamed hope but has long since lost his luster. Only after five years in office did he wake up to declare that inequality was a major issue to be confronted, and then he did not say how.

It doesn’t help the left that youth inside the precariat face a hostile social state, unlike anything their parents faced. Ever since Bill Clinton promised in 1996 to “end welfare as we know it,” social democrats everywhere have joined the right in offering the unemployed and youth in general a mix of benefit sanctions, for alleged behavioral deficiencies, and workfare, which is little more than forced labor, mostly in demeaning make-work schemes, if they wish to receive benefits. Politicians call this “tough love.” But there is no love. It is an Orwellian term that conceals the loss of the vital ingredient of progressive politics: empathy.

The days of rage to come

The labor-based parties of social democracy seem doomed to marginal status, just as their old trade-union base withers. That does not mean the left is necessarily doomed: though it is currently impotent, it will take new forms. The old is dying; the new is not quite ready to spring into life. The “morbid symptoms of decay” that the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, surveying the lost left in the 1930s, brought into the imagination of another generation are all around. More than half the young in Spain are unemployed, homelessness is rampant, poverty is higher than it has been for decades and charities are overstretched.

The anger inside the precariat is simmering, and from time to time it boils over into days of rage. The spontaneous mobilization of collective energy in Gezi Park in Istanbul, the anti-austerity protests in Athens and the constant street actions of the indignados in Spain are all part of the “primitive rebels” phase of an emerging class, seeking a path of recognition, representation and then redistribution. “Primitive rebels” is a term used by the late historian Eric Hobsbawm. It is used to describe those who rebel against a system that is manifestly unfair but who are unable as yet to offer a coherent alternative; Hobsbawm wagers that they are the harbinger of more strategic action. As with the Occupy movement, they know what they are against but have not yet articulated what they want, except that it is not the past. As one subversive piece of graffiti on a Madrid wall put it: “The worst thing would be to return to the old normal.”

In Bulgaria, there has been an Occupy settlement outside the parliamentary buildings for months. The government, paralyzed, accused the protesters of being middle class and paid to demonstrate. Lobbed back, metaphorically, came the defiant cry, “We do not need to be paid to hate you!” Six youths have killed themselves; one who self-immolated has been adopted as a symbol of defiance. The outside world takes no notice.

There is no need to talk of revolutionary times. Tumultuous times will do.

Everywhere, the energy is growing. Outbreaks of primitive rebels could come anywhere. Comedian Beppe Grillo, who led the Five Star movement to extraordinary success in Italy’s general election a year ago, may not be a great hope for progressive revival. But something he said sticks in the memory. Addressing the political establishment, he screamed, “Give up! You are dead men walking.” The PD may be re-elected with its new, telegenic leader who models himself on Tony Blair, but Italian youth are disaffected. In the U.K., another comedian, Russell Brand, made headlines by saying on TV that youths should not bother to vote because nothing was on offer. The diagnosis was understandable, but the advice was nihilistic and self-defeating.

There is no need to talk of revolutionary times. Tumultuous times will do. What must be offered is a revived sense of the future, a vision of a society that is about more than endless labor and endless consumption amid chronic uncertainty and almost unsustainable debt. It is just a matter of time until the precariat organize and turn their days of rage into a movement. The far right may be growing, but too many Europeans know their history to allow themselves to be duped again. Meanwhile, the left must realize that it has only ever prospered when those entering politics have understood and espoused values corresponding to the insecurities and aspirations of the emerging mass class, struggling in the lower echelons of society. It must offer a sense of future, a politics of paradise, to members of that class. So far, it has failed to do so.

Guy Standing is a professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London and the author of “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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