Posturing against austerity:
an infantile disorder
The left-wing groups making electoral gains in Europe are driven by a desire to avoid reality rather than a determination to create a new one.
Given that a Socialist president has been elected in France for the first time since 1981, and that the two main parties in Greece have taken a drubbing in a general election, it’s understandable that the local elections in Italy have been overlooked. That’s a shame, though, since those elections produced a result which speaks powerfully to the state of European politics in 2012. In Italy, an actual comedian has done well in the polls, a joker, a man who made his living from making people laugh and who has now become someone who ‘shakes the cage of traditionalist politics’. Indeed, funnyman Beppe Grillo’s party won some ‘massive victories’, leading one waggish headline writer to say that the Italian people had ‘the last laugh in local elections’.
The rise of Grillo reveals a great deal about where European politics is at. First, it shows that much of the current voting, in Italy, in England, in Greece, is motivated by a narrow anti-incumbency sentiment, where the desire is simply to give a bloody nose to ruling parties. So in Italy, parties or independents critical of Mario Monti’s technocratic government (which did not stand in the elections) did well. Secondly, it reveals that the beneficiaries of today’s cynicism with the old mainstream parties are likely to be new, rootless, even one-issue organisations that stand on a ticket of not being like ‘Them’. Grillo’s anti-politics party was born out of his personal blog just three years ago. And thirdly, it suggests, pretty powerfully, that the oppositionists being elected across Europe are a bit of a joke – sometimes literally.
In many ways, the rise of Grillo in Italy’s local elections is less concerning than the success of François Hollande in France or of a coalition of apparently radical left-wing parties in Greece, two electoral events which are being crazily depicted as a ‘political revolution’. At least you know where you stand with a comedian; at least you know he’s mostly joking. The alarming thing about Hollande and Alexis Tsipras, the comparatively youthful leader of Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, is that they are being treated seriously despite the fact that they, too, are a bit of a joke, a comedic interlude in mainstream politics who offer little, if anything, in the way of an alternative. Yes, many of those who voted for Grillo were ‘having a laugh’; what’s truly bizarre is that many of those getting excited by the victories of Hollande and Tsipras are being serious.
Great claims are being made in the wake of the local elections in Britain, the presidential elections in France, and the legislative elections in Greece. Britain’s Labour Party may have secured the votes of just 12.5 per cent of the eligible electorate, but it came top in the local elections, and so we’re told that ‘Labour is back’. The victories of Hollande in France (where he won 51.63 per cent of the vote to Nicolas Sarkozy’s 48.37 per cent), and of SYRIZA in Greece (the anti-austerity, radical left coalition which won 16.78 per cent of the vote), are being talked up as a ‘new dawn’ for European social democracy. According to a Guardian editorial, we have witnessed a ‘stunning victory… for the left in Europe’.
These observers urgently need to take a reality check. Because in truth, the most striking thing about the recent elections in Europe has been the utter absence of any matters of doctrine, of principle, of ideological outlook. In England, France, Greece, Italy, no doctrinal matters whatsoever have been raised, far less contested. These elections are best seen, not as a new dawn for social democracy, but as an unfocused emotional reaction against things – against Sarkozy, austerity, Brussels. Actually, it’s worse than that. Where once the left was concerned with creating a new reality, one based on systems and values quite distinct from those of traditionalists, today’s emerging left is obsessed with avoiding reality, with hiding away from the harshness of economic life in 2012 and simply saying: ‘Be gone!’ The problem with the newly successful left movements is not just that they’re attracting shallow protest votes, but that they’re extraordinarily infantile, blinkered outfits.
The only ‘doctrine’ uniting the various movements against austerity in modern Europe (both the left-wing and right-wing ones) is the doctrine of responsibility aversion, of shirking seriousness in favour of emotionalism. What the cheerleaders of these movements fail to realise is that being anti-austerity without positing an alternative route out of recession, without any serious proposals for stabilising economic life in Europe, is mere gesture politics. In fact it’s an act of irresponsibility, of wilfulness, where the key aim is to insulate oneself and one’s supporters from the harsh realities of our recessionary times rather than face up to those realities and potentially transform them. The new anti-austerity posturing, to quote an old communist, is an infantile disorder.
Ironically, given all the talk of a new dawn for the left, the fashion for recklessly kicking against any responsibility for thinking about harsh economic measures was set in motion by a man of the right: Geert Wilders. Wilders, leader of Holland’s anti-Islamic Freedom Party, brought about the collapse of the Dutch government last month when he withdrew from negotiations about shaving €16 billion from the country’s budget. The most striking thing about Wilders’ actions was their childish, self-serving nature. He felt that the austerity package would be unpopular with some of his working-class supporters, and also he believes, in the words of a Reuters reporter, that his ‘anti-Euro agenda will catapult him up the polls’. Having casually precipitated the fall of the government, he then left Holland for a tour of America to promote his book Marked for Death: Islam’s War against the West and Me (me, me, me).
SYRIZA, the left coalition in Greece, and many of the supporters of President Hollande in France, may consider themselves total opposites to Wilders. But their posturing against austerity is not that different to his. They, too, are driven by an urge to wish away economic realities by simply saying ‘No!’. The success of SYRIZA in Greece was indeed striking, but less for anything that that radical left coalition has said or done than for what it reveals about the process of disintegration at work in mainstream European politics. The key dynamic in Greece was not a surge in radical leftism but a demise in support for the two big parties that supported the EU bailout package and which dominated Greek politics for 40 years: the left-wing Pasok, whose vote share fell from 44 per cent to 13.18 per cent, and the conservative New Democracy, whose vote fell from 33.47 per cent to 18.18 per cent. SYRIZA’s success (it won 52 seats in parliament) is built on little more than an emotional reaction against the main parties and the EU.
As with Wilders in Holland, there is nothing serious or substantial about SYRIZA’s posturing against austerity. The terms most often used to describe its attitude towards the EU bailout plan for Greece is that it plans to ‘walk away’ from it or to ‘rip it up’. A serious movement would think long and hard about what needs to be done now, however harsh, in order to create the conditions for economic growth and prosperity in the future. All SYRIZA does is milk voters’ emotional anger with the old rulers of Greece and effectively shout ‘screw you!’ to Brussels. The main reason SYRIZA is causing great excitement in left-wing circles across Europe is because activists see an opportunity to live vicariously through it, to fantasise that it represents the return of the left or of serious oppositional politics. It doesn’t. Alexis Tsipras is a Greek Ed Miliband, with better TV skills.
Meanwhile in France, President Hollande has rallied people around the cry, ‘Austerity is no longer the only option!’. He says the EU must ‘focus on growth’. He’s certainly right that austerity isn’t the only option, but there are two problems with his posturing. First, it’s doubtful Hollande is a true devotee of growth. Consider his promise to shut down 50 per cent of France’s impressive nuclear power stations by 2025 – that seems more consistent with today’s eco-meek, ambition-strangling outlook than with a serious pursuit of prosperity for all. And second, it’s simply not true that Europe is today faced with a simple choice between Austerity and Growth, like a child picking between brussel sprouts or ice-cream. Indeed, it is only through considering harsh economic measures now, from the reduction of welfare spending to the ‘creative destruction’ of capital, that anybody could hope to create the conditions for growth in the coming period. The key accomplishment of SYRIZA, Hollande and others is to put off into the future the enactment of harsh economic measures, thus making such measures potentially worse when they come.
Hollande, SYRIZA and others have turned ‘growth’ into a platitude, a mere word they use to get up the noses of unpopular Brussels bureaucrats. These movements’ fortunes are built on the fact that they ‘Just Say No’ to austerity. But that is not enough, certainly not for those of us on the left who are really serious about liberating Europeans from both Brussels’ political deadbeats and from today’s suffocating fashion for low horizons and slowing down progress. While saying ‘No’ to the EU is perfectly fine in something like a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, when the only options are ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, we should expect far more in the way of a programme when it comes to parliamentary and presidential elections. Europe’s new rulers aren’t spearheading a revolution; they’re institutionalising an emotional desire to hide from the recession, and in the process are potentially intensifying people’s future economic hardships. Some leftists.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. He is speaking at the Institute of Ideas debate Will the EU be the death of democracy? at Goodenough College, London, on Thursday 31 May.