The critique of neoliberalism by the radical Left didn’t gain much traction before the Great Financial Crisis. It hasn’t gained much more since. If the failure of the efforts of the radical Left to make a discernible impact before the crisis can be forgiven, the failure to do so after the crisis simply cannot. The destitution and immerisation wrought upon citizens has been the most widespread and deep-seated since the 1930s.
Neoliberalism – a particular form of capitalist ideology that holds that all human activities can and should be commodified for sale on the open market – was in the ascendancy until 2008. Social democracy caved into neoliberalism, producing its own imitation called social liberalism. This was most graphically illustrated when in 2002, Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was. She replied: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.’ She had in mind what Anthony Giddens had theorised as ‘the Third Way’.
So what set apart the radical Left from the rest of what passes as the Left was the insistence that the processes and outcomes of the market must not be allowed to determine the life chances and living standards of citizens. Thus markets are not progressive and cannot be harnessed for the common good. And they cloak in mystery and obfuscate – through ‘the invisible hand’ – the wealth and power of elites. This radical Left stretches from Trotskyists, Marxists and communists through to (actual) social democrats.
The Battle of Seattle of 1999 seemed to have kicked off an opportunity for the radical Left to imbed itself in a wider and rising social movement called ‘anti-capitalism’. ‘People before profit’, ‘people not profit’ and ‘another world is possible’ became the rallying cries of this emerging phenomenon.
Seattle gave rise to hounding of the G8 wherever it met and the creation of the Social Forums. In the end – and even before being knocked aside by 9/11 and the Iraq war – the activities of the radical Left in the anti-capitalism movement became little more than a form of political tourism, namely, mobilising to go to one foreign meeting after another. Without a rise in the level of the struggle of workers in their workplace – the most obvious form of class struggle – this was perhaps inevitable.
The massive mobilisations against the Iraq war in 2003 were the epitome of the failure of a popular form of ‘soft power’. The carnage inside Iraq did not matter. Unlike Vietnam, the number of body bags coming home simply was not great enough to bring into life a mass revolt and compel an ignominious retreat by the forces of imperialism. There was to be no shot in the arm for the radical Left.
Come the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, all the arguments of the radical Left should have been able to make hay in the sunshine. Mass media openly discussed the future of capitalism. Even a broken clock that continually pronounces the collapse of capitalism can be right once a day. But it was not to be.
The only exception that proves the rule is the rise of Syrzia in Greece. It is an amalgam of many (though not all) strands of the radical Left and is now in a credible position to challenge for power. Of course, Syrzia is not yet the government and may never become it – and its existence has not stopped the destruction of citizens’ livelihoods there.
But at least Syrzia is a contender. You’d have to bend the stick quite a bit to judge Die Linke in Germany and Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal as at all similar. Both are proportionately much smaller than Syrzia and have had significant ups and downs since 2008. So the picture elsewhere – in Australia, Britain, France, Italy and the USA – is pretty much one of complete and utter failure.
The explanation for this failure cannot but be premised on the inherent organisational and cultural nature of the radical Left prior to the crash. Bluntly put, the radical Left entered the period of the crash without much in the way of political credibility. Yes, often its arguments were put in a rather shrill, patronising tone but the arguments were essentially sound (welfare not warfare, human need nor private greed, etc etc). It was the manner in which the arguments were put and the way in which the radical Left conducted itself that were the main problems.
Sectarianism, millennialism and dogmatism became the unholy trinity. Only now are there some signs emerging of the desire to create a new, post-sectarian radical Left. Even if these attempts have some success, they will have missed the boat … unless we wait for the next crisis in (or of) capitalism to provide the basis for the connection between the radical Left and the masses of citizens.