The Eight of May was the Fête de la Victoire in France. It was also the day of François Hollande’s first public appearance as president-elect. The right-wing Le Figaro featured photographs of ‘deux presidents sous l’Arc de Triomphe’, in which Sarkozy managed to look even more disgruntled than usual and Hollande looked as if he had just grasped a double-edge sword by the blade.
The public holiday commemorates the surrender of Germany at the end of WWII and the defeat of fascism in most of the states of Europe – Spain and Portugal being the exceptions. It was an interesting day as left-wing newspapers like Libération, L’Humanité and Le Monde expressed concern about the rise of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn in Greece and a near 20% support for Marine le Pen in France while at the same time noting left-wing advances. Without drawing any parallels, it is also worth remarking that the consensus is that no matter what François Hollande thinks about austerity, Germany rules.
Everyone is agreed that Hollande is not a revolutionary and that he may well continue the neo-liberal policies of Sarkozy, though without the venomous racist rhetoric. The old saw about ‘campaigning on the left and ruling on the right’ is tailor-made for the Europe’s centre-left parties. When Angela Merkel said she would welcome him with open arms, she probably had this in mind. But as yet it is not at all certain that this is what Hollande will do. There are a number of reasons why he might not, including the general collapse of neoliberalism as an economic theory, whatever about the structures of wealth and power it is intended to support. In any case, Alexis Tsipras of the SYRIZA party in Greece, is not toeing any old left/right centre line. He has terrified the markets apparently, and august bodies such as the EU Commission and the IMF are trembling and re-orientating themselves to the bizarre fact that a nation is not prepared to immiserate itself to save foreign banks.
In many ways this is the usual newspaper guff. Nevertheless something new is afoot in Europe and it might be timely to appraise it.
It is a startling fact that ten governments have fallen as a direct consequence of the crisis: Finland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Romania and The Netherlands. Iceland – outside the Eurozone – makes eleven. Six of these, including Ireland, resulted in the election of right wing governments. Many commentators have interpreted this as a swing to the right. However, it must be observed that in the Tweedledum/Tweedledee contest that counts as politics nowadays, the only way to reject the views of Tweedledum is to vote for Tweedledee even though he will prosecute exactly the same policies. Therefore, these votes are better read as a rejection of, and punishment of, the governments believed to be responsible for the crisis. The people expressed their thoughts in the only way possible so far. In other words, these elections represent the first stirrings of democracy, the people testing their power. It must also be remembered that considerable manoeuvring has taken place in some countries to prevent just such an expression of democracy – Italy’s ‘expert’ government being a case in point. It now looks as though Greece will go for a second General Election, a possibility relished by people like Tsipras.
This, in fact is what has made the markets jittery. What if people use elections to express their opinions rather than putting Tweedledum back in as usual? Is it possible that elections could become unpredictable? What kind of instability would occur if elections actually worked? And what would rich people (aka The Market) think? Would politicians be expected to act on their promises? That way madness lies.
The rise of the far-right is another aspect of the elections that is exercising a lot of word-processors at the moment, and undoubtedly Greece’s Golden Dawn is a terrifying organisation, a kind of BNP on crack. They remind me of those people who thought the Da Vinci Code was actual history – except in this case the set text is Mein Kampf. In France, Marine Le Pen has moderated her language in the usual way, but she still represents the good old mix of xenophobia, racism and corporate-statism. France often tries to forget that Marshall Petain not only collaborated with Hitler, but instituted his own brand of fascism in Vichy. And Greece has had the Colonels. There is a fascist rump in every state in the world. It hides in the Republican Party in the USA, for example, in the Tory party in the UK, in Fine Gael in Ireland. I would suggest that it’s better to see it expressed in far-right parties like the EDL, BNP, FN or Golden Dawn than have it lurking in centre-right coalitions, driving the nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-worker, anti-gay rights agenda. At least we’d know where they were.
For me, the most startling development of all is the re-emergence of the left/right discourse after thirty years of right-wing hegemony. As little as four years ago it was fashionable to use the term ‘left-wing’ as a synonym for ‘crank’. Nobody was described as right-wing. Neoliberalism was regarded as neutral, a fact of life rather than an ideology, to which there was no alternative because history was over. It was sufficient to say that the markets would not wear a policy for it to be regarded as impractical. Ideological conflict, certainly in the sense of left-wing politics, was over and class warfare was a thing of the past.
None of it went away, of course, it was just that the mainstream media ignored it. It still does to a large extent. But suddenly the name of Marx crops up in casual conversation. Politicians are routinely described as left or right. Class is back. This is an earthquake in public discourse. It involves the return of the repressed, to coin a phrase, the dark under-consciousness of the capitalist consensus. Vast swathes of the population always knew there was a class conflict and they were losing it – people in precarious labour, unemployed people, people who couldn’t afford health insurance, disabled people – but they didn’t have a name for it. If nothing else the crisis has been a naming of names. The most significant challenge for the left in the coming years is not power or revolution, but to re-establish the left-wing analysis as central to debate. In the meantime, increasing the left vote at elections has a useful disciplinary purpose.
The Irish election of 2011 is instructive in this regard. In the previous election the combined total of left-wing seats was approximately 15%. In 2011, the left vote increased to 38.5%. Yet the government that resulted from that election is a right-wing/centre-left coalition, with the Irish Labour Party as junior partner prosecuting all the brutal austerity measures they had campaigned against under the fatal slogan ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way’. What this means is that the critical mass of left-wing and left leaning voters was not sufficient to push the ILP into a more radical stance. In Greece, on the other hand, the critical mass, combined with massive street protests and general strikes, may well be enough to force PASOK, the socialist party, to come to terms with SYRIZA in due course, if not in this election, then in the next or the next. What is happening is the radicalisation of public discourse, a possibility that terrifies those who benefit most from the status quo.
In all of this the figure of Alexis Tsipras is one of the most interesting. As of today he has declared the Greek Bailout terms null and void and threatened to nationalise the banks. He cannot form a government but is said to relish the thought of fighting another election in a month or two. The markets are worried and therefore the politicians are worried. What they are worried about is, I think, that Alexis Tsipras’ middle name is Hugo. A European Chavez might just be enough to ignite the powder-keg that they’re sitting on. If Greece went left, a la the Bolivarian Revolution, the other little PIGGIES might think the same way. After all, many of us have already nationalised our banks anyway, and Ireland has nationalised a vast housing stock. It’s the flip of an ideological switch between holding these institutions in trust for the people who ruined them in the first place, and holding them in trust for the people. It’s what happened in South America, so maybe that continent is the one to lead us out of our despairing subservience to the market.
What has Berlin shaking cudgels, share prices falling, bond spreads increasing, Eurozone finance ministers ‘engaged in heated debate’ and Wolfgang Schaüble flatly declaring that ‘the Greek nation knows what it has to do’ is the sound of a cork popping. It’s definitely not champagne this time round. In fact it’s very like the sound of a genie escaping.