Missing the boat? The Left and the GFC

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Gregor Gall is visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds. He is currently writing a book for Manchester University Press called The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer. It will be published in 2022 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Strummer’s death on 22 December 2002.

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  1. An alternative reading: the radical left has failed in its opposition to neoliberalism because it’s fighting a battle akin to warring with gravity.
    Markets, if you choose to see them, exist everywhere in any form of interaction between any two agents. All forms of utopian leftism actually incorporate something notionally analogous to markets at their very heart.
    Neoliberalism deserves to be damned for taking that fairly simple reality and fashioning an ideology around it, but the left should also be damned for being trapped into stepping up to the same ridiculous pointless battle.
    So, while there is actually a contemporary narrative seam that runs right up the conservative centre of society that would readily concur with 90% of the left’s assessment of what ails the world, the left has been largely unable to speak to it because as soon as our mouths are open, we’re babbling about neoliberalism and globalisation, which is kind of Gall’s point.
    But he’s still thinking about everything relative to its capability to do some kind of a takedown on his neoliberal straw man. I’d suggest just finding a better way of talking to people about markets, public policy and the nexus between those and their lived experiences is the beginning.
    There’s such a vast amount that has changed within the public sphere over the past 20-30 years that the relationships of individuals to both governments and political movement has shifted fundamentally, yet the left’s the actor in the process most behaving like it was 20 years ago.
    Gall characterises anyone opposing markets outright as the “Radical left” and pops them straight in the vanguard. I’d argue these are the very dead weights that lost the battle in the first place. Quixotes to the last, I’d argue the mode of battle they are steeped in physically prevents them from discourse with the “masses of citizens” Gall wishes them in touch with.

  2. I agree with Gregor that the radical left had no credibility going into the crisis.

    But it has been a long, long time since significant numbers of workers in the UK or Australia identified with the traditions and policies of radical left parties.

    The Communists in both countries benefited briefly in terms of membership and votes from the defeat of fascism in Europe in 1944/45.

    In the 1970s and 1980s the Trotskyist groups mistook their involvement in, and occasional leadership of, some industrial struggles for substantive and long-lasting political influence.

    The incremental erosion of the radical sub-cultures within parts of the working class that had provided a supportive environment for various forms of militancy and radicalism since WW2 had, by 2008, become so pervasive that the radical critique of neoliberalism was unlikely to gain significant popular traction.

    It is this political recomposition of the working class over the past six decades that seems to me to be the key factor in explaining the marginality of socialist politics today.

    Of course, the ultra-left sloganeering and quasi-Stalinist modes of organization favored by the Trotskyist sects did little to add credibility to the socialist cause.

    But their appeal and influence was always marginal. Their behaviour does not really explain why socialist ideas and policies are regarded by most working people at present as irrelevant to their problems and concerns.

    But Gregor ends on a cautiously positive note when he says ‘there some signs emerging of the desire to create a new, post-sectarian radical Left.’

    I am not sure what he has in mind. I am not aware of such developments in Australia. In the UK we are witnessing the slow death of the SWP which, on balance, is to be welcomed if it quickens the decline of the sect-cult mode of socialist organizing.

    If Gregor means the Left Unity initiative, then I’m afraid I fear for the worst.

    On the one hand, it has become infested by the ultra-left armed with their quotes from Lenin to prove why they are correct on every question. (To be fair, who can fail to see the similarities between the death throes of Tsarist Russia amid military defeat and social collapse, and contemporary Britain?)

    On the other hand, I strongly suspect the saner elements within the leadership of Left Unity have overestimated the potential that exists at present for building a large and electorally-credible force to the left of Labour.

    I hear that some among the Left Unity leadership expect a membership in the tens of thousands within the next year or two. If so, crushing disappointment awaits.

  3. Gregor: If only it were as simple as “the manner in which the arguments were put and the way in which the radical Left conducted itself that were the main problems”.

    I would argue there are bigger problems of analysis and strategic orientation that have also hampered our side, as well as a tendency to reach conclusions about national political requirements from shallow surveys of international patterns.

    On analysis: Let’s take one argument you say the radical Left got right (at least in the abstract), that neoliberalism was “a particular form of capitalist ideology that holds that all human activities can and should be commodified for sale on the open market”. From this it flows that the Left was right to attack market boosterism as wrong and destructive to human progress.

    Yet what happened in the GFC were some the biggest anti-market state interventions in world history, mostly carried out to prop up capitalist firms and national economies. Having spent so long railing against the problems of the market, suddenly the radical Left was being outflanked on the issue by governments of the centre-Right and centre-Left — not just at the level of ideas but practically.

    Could it not be that this wrong-footed the radical Left, especially those sections that had posed the key question as “for or against the market” without thinking through how they would deal with “for or against the capitalist state” playing itself out concretely in the event of a crisis?

    The issue of the state and what “challenging for power” means is also important in the one “success story” you cite, that of the rise of Syriza. But I think you over-egg its success in contrast to other Left parties.

    Syriza’s rise in Greece has been an especially rapid one in a period marked by shocking austerity, a very profound crisis of official politics, high levels of political instability on the Right and Left of the political spectrum, and levels of working class resistance higher than in any other advanced capitalist country. To compare formations like Die Linke unfavourably because they “have had significant ups and downs since 2008” strikes me as missing how unstable Syriza’s own path since 2008 has been, how it suffered significant internal divisions as late as 2010 (the Alavanos challenge), and how late it rose from the 3-5% in the polls it averaged in 2006-2011 (it was still running at 5% in April 2011) to become a “contender”.

    None of this is to take away from its ability to act as a national political focus against the right-wing and left-wing parties that committed themselves to implementing the Troika’s austerity requirements, but surely the question is not a more general one about the radical Left’s “conduct”?

    If we are to make international comparisons we would do better to look very closely at the specific national circumstances where positive and negative examples have occurred, understand very precisely the terrain on which various political organisations are operating, and look closely at how they intervened at specific points in time. This will help us avoid both broad-brush dismissals of the international far Left (as you present here), and the temptation to crudely translate the successes in one country into a general international rule (as has been seen with the calls for a Syriza-type party in country after country).

    I say all this knowing that the radical Left has not done well here in Australia despite a six year period of intense political crisis in our country, a crisis that chiefly affected the moderate Left (Labor and Greens) and which radicals should have been able to take advantage of. Given the relative lack of impact of the global recession on Australia, we have to contend with a different constellation of forces to those found in a country like Greece, but the task remains the same for us as for Greek radicals — to understand our national situation in its specificity and uniqueness, and to seek to act on that analysis to transform the situation.

  4. Call them what you will, markets or no markets, there always seems to be some ascendant group creaming off surplus value.

  5. It appears you are surprised that the radical Left has not surged ahead in popularity given the opportunities they have had to highlight the failings of the Right. But who would have mobilised this potential growth in what is destined to live on forever as a tiny minority? The Wikileaks Party? The word radical in the political sphere almost always equates to a paranoid one-eyed minority, and the stubborn refusal to compromise, or at the very least accept the right of others to believe the opposite, is the fundamental factor inhibiting growth of the extremes on both sides of politics. It would be a better argument to suggest the radical Left has stunted the growth of the moderate Left(Greens). The extremes of politics are the most controversial, and as such occupy a disproportionate amount of media attention. People on the Right think the Greens are a bunch of unemployed barefoot ferals, chaining themselves to logging trucks, and the Left think the Right are sitting around Pauline Hanson’s coffee table figuring out how they can reintroduce slavery. Of course this is an exaggeration, but my point is that the radical Left and the radical Right are pushing everyone toward the Centre of politics, and it would take a lot more than a mild financial crisis(in Aus) to pull them all back out to the extremes.

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