The Crisis of the Left and the Decline of Europe and the United States

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The Crisis of the Left and the Decline of Europe and the United States

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron stand at attention during a state arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Wednesday, March 14, 2012. (Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The victory of the Conservative Party and the debacle of the Labour Party in the recent British general elections is yet another sign of the crisis facing left-wing forces today, leaving aside the question of how, under the British electoral system, the Labour Party actually increased the number of votes it won but saw a reduction in the number of seats it now holds in Parliament (24 seats less than the previous 256).

If the proportional rather than uninominal system had been used, the Conservative Party with its 11 million votes would have won 256 and not 331 seats in Parliament (far short of the absolute majority of 326 needed to govern), while at the other extreme the United Kingdom Independence Party with nearly four million votes would have landed 83 and not just the one seat it ended up with – results that would be hard to imagine anywhere else and a good example of insularity.

To an extent, the recent British general elections mirrored the U.S. presidential elections in 2000 when Democratic candidate Al Gore won around half a million more popular votes than Republican candidate George W. Bush but failed to win the majority of electoral college votes on which the U.S. system is based. The outcome was eight years of George W.  Bush administration, the war in Iraq, the crisis of multilateralism, and all the paraphernalia of “America’s exceptional destiny”.

Let us venture now into an analysis that will have the politologues among us cringing.

“The left has tried to mimic the winners, instead of trying to be an alternative to the process of neoliberal globalisation and, since the beginning of the world financial crisis in 2008 … it has had no real answer to the crisis”

It is now generally recognised that the end of the Soviet Union has given free way to a kind of capitalism without control, marked by an unprecedented supremacy of finance which, in terms of volume of investments, overwhelmingly exceeds the real or productive economy.

In its wake, neoliberal thinking has found the left totally unprepared, because part of its function had been to provide a democratic alternative to Communism, which was suddenly no longer a threat.

The left therefore has tried to mimic the winners, instead of trying to be an alternative to the process of neoliberal globalisation and, since the beginning of the world financial crisis in 2008 (with its bail-out cost so far of over four trillion dollars), it has had no real answer to the crisis.

Ever since the industrial revolution, the identity of the left had been to press for social justice, equality of opportunities and redistribution, while the right placed the emphasis on individual efforts, less role for the state and success as motivation.

Continuing with this brutal simplification, we have to add that the left, from Marx to Keynes, always studied how to create economic growth and redistribution – Marx by abolishing private property, social democrats through just taxation.

But it never studied the creation of a progressive agenda in the event case of an economic crisis such as the one we are now facing, with structural unemployment, young people obliged  to accept any kind of contract, new technologies which are making the concept of classes disappear, and rendering trade unions – erstwhile powerful actors for social justice – irrelevant.

It is unprecedented that the top 25 hedge fund managers received a reward in 2014 of 11.62 billion dollars, yet neither U.S. President Barack Obama nor Ed Miliband, then still leader of the Labour Party at the recent British general elections (until he resigned after election defeat), saw it fit to denounce this obscene level of greed.

Meanwhile, Europe as a political project is clearly in disarray, and now faces a “Grexit” on its southern flank and a “Brexit” on its northern flank.

In the case of a “Grexit” (the possible abandonment of the European Union by Greece), Greece faces the prospects of having to make substantial concessions to Europe, thus reneging on the promises of Alexis Tsipras who was voted in as prime minister in rebellion against years of dismantlement of public and social structures imposed in the name of austerity.

What is at stake here is the very neoliberal model itself and not only is ordoliberal Germany supported by allies like Austria, Finland and the Netherlands erecting a wall against any form of leniency, but countries which accepted painful cuts and where conservatives are now in power, like Spain, Portugal and Ireland, see leniency as giving in to the left.

A “Brexit” (the possible abandonment of the European Union by Britain) is a different affair. It is a game being played by British Prime Minister David Cameron to negotiate a more favourable agreement for Britain with the European Union.

A referendum will be held before the end of 2017 and the four million people who voted for the UKIP in the recent elections, plus the country’s “Euro-sceptics”, threaten to push Britain out of the European Union, especially if Cameron does not manage to obtain some substantial concessions from Brussels.

Meanwhile, if Europe is in disarray, the United States has a serious problem of governance. Analyst Moisés Naím, who served as editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine from 1996 to 2010, has pinpointed a few examples of how this has translated into self-inflicted damage.

One concerns China which, after waiting five years trying to get the Republican-dominated Congress to authorise and increase in its stake in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from a ridiculous 3.8 percent to 6 percent (compared with the 16.5 percent of the United States), got fed up and established an alternative fund, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Washington tried unsuccessfully to kill the initiative by putting pressure on its allies but first the United Kingdom, then Italy, Germany and France announced their participation in the new bank, which now has 50 member countries and the United States is not one of them.

Another example was the attempt by the Republican-dominated Congress to kill the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank) which has provided support for U.S exporters to the tune of 570 billion dollars since it was set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934.  In just the last two years, China has provided 670 billion dollars in support for its exporters. Moral of the story: U.S. companies will be at a clear disadvantage.

As Larry Summers, a great proponent of U.S. hegemony, put it, “the US will not be in a position to shape the global economic system”.

The latest snub to the U.S. role of world leader came from four Arab heads of state who snubbed a U.S.-Gulf States summit at Camp David on May 14. The summit had been called by Obama to reassure the Gulf states that the ongoing negotiations with Iran over a nuclear agreement would not diminish their relevance, but the rulers of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain deserted the summit.

However, there is no more striking example of mistake-making than the joint effort by the United States and Europe to push Russian President Vladimir against the wall over his engagement in Ukraine by imposing heavy sanctions.

There was no apparent reflection on the wisdom of encircling a paranoid and autocratic leader, albeit one with strong popular support, by progressively also bringing in all Eastern and Central European countries. The result of this encirclement of Russia is that China has now come to the rescue of Russia, by injecting money into the country’s asphyxiated economy.

China will invest around six billion dollars in the construction of a high speed railway between Moscow and Kazan, is financing a 2,700 kilometre pipeline for the supply of 30 billion cubic metres of Russian gas over a period of 30 years, plus several other projects, including the establishment of a two billion dollar common fund for investments and a loan of 860 million dollars to the Russian Sberbank bank.

So, the net result is that Russia has been pushed out of Europe and into the arms of China, and the two are now starting joint naval and military manoeuvres.  Is this in the interest of Europe?

At the end of the day, the decline of Europe and the United States perhaps comes down to a decline of political vision, with democracy being substituted by partocracy, and the statesman of yesteryear being substituted by very much more modest and self-referential political leaders.

This is all taking place amid a growing disaffection with politics, which is now aimed basically at administrative choices, making corruption easy. At least this is what around one-third of electors now appear to believe when they are asked if they think that they can make a difference at elections … and this is why a rapidly growing number of people are deserting the ballot box.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of IPS, is a member of the WSF International Committee.

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