In late 2015, after seven years of unresolved economic crises, two old white men summoned the most potent left-wing resurgence in a generation. They had weathered decades of right-wing policies by their party, standing by their principles, hoping for their time to come. Now it has.
Corbyn and Sanders may seem like characters from a fairy tale, or a surreal radical fantasy: After Labour and the Democratic Party bit the poisoned apple of the Third Way, the parties’ left half got paralyzed, until each was kissed by its own retirement-age prince. Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour party in late 2015, just after Sanders surged in the Democratic presidential primaries. Social democracy seemed to be walking and talking again.
Seeing those two men awakens lustful fantasies in European radicals. Where are our elderly leftists? they ask. Where is our savior? But the resurgence of the left is not a fairy tale (except in the sense that it hasn’t really happened yet). Several factors underlie the success of Sanders and Corbyn which aren’t in place in European countries. We can broadly summarize them under two headings: What makes these two men so special, and what sets the parties they (nearly) conquered apart from those of other countries?
Men of Principles
Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders started their political careers in the early Eighties, just as class politics were dying and supermarket politics were born. People left their political tribe to shop in the marketplace of ideas, expressing themselves through consumption and voting. Politics became a matter of signaling values and opinions, both for voters and politicians. Single-issue parties sprung into existence. As the hippie movement died, its ideas were selectively plucked into mainstream culture. Self-improvement and authentic expression became the ideal of personal development.
Meanwhile, the media meandered from heavy central control, with high-minded ideals of public service, to mere eyeball-farming for advertisements. Prices of newspapers dropped, but so did their credibility. Tabloids became tools of influence and mass-diversion. In order to compensate for their catering to their advertisers and owners, editors resorted to flick-baiting; sensational news about prurient or salacious things. What politicians did with their assistants became more important than what they signed off as law.
This helped to narrow political debate, keeping it on a short leash of ad- and campaign-finance. During this period, plagued by Thatcher, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Blair, some more Bush, Change We Can Believe In and Gordon Brown, inequality increased while political parties agreed on one principle, which Tony Blair put thus: “For business, this will be a government on your side, not in your way.”
Radicals like Corbyn and Sanders didn’t participate in this rightward swing. They kept attending protests, marches and meetings. As the left splintered into single-issue campaigns, they hopped between the street and the representative houses. For decades, the two of them seemed like quaint and irrelevant Ghosts of Christmas Past.
Then, ten years ago, the economy betrayed the politicians and collapsed.
The fractured left wasn’t in any shape to respond. Social democratic parties sacrificed what little credibility they had left trying to restart capitalism rather than reform it. The inequalities it produced increased sharply, and people felt miserable. Nobody seemed to represent their concerns. The left was discredited and out of touch, the right was breaking apart into globalisers and patriots. The ruling parties became weak, discontent rife. They were weak against insurgents.
Activists from the various movements coalesced around those who had supported their struggles — like Corbyn and Sanders. They registered for party membership, campaigned door to door, pushing their candidate forward as the Democratic and Labour old guard tried to beat them back. But the tactical disorientation of the establishment, its lack of base, and the utter ideological vacuum which it inhabits made resistance to the activists difficult.
Parties of Parties
It was a coalition of activists that made and sustained Corbyn and Sanders as viable candidates, but it was the specific structure of the Democratic and Labour parties that made the intrepid duo a credible threat to the establishment.
Both the US and the UK have a “first-past-the-post” polling system, where each unit of voters returns not a proportional list of candidates, but a single representative. The natural outcome of such a system is a parliament dominated by two parties, with a sprinkling of smaller ones. This has many interesting consequences, but one of them is to force two centrist coalitions down the throat of the electorate; center-left and center-right. In the US, the Democratic Party has taken the mantle of urban and progressive center-leftism, and is, by the necessities of the two-party system, their coalition. In Britain, the analogous party is Labour.
This contrasts vividly with continental European politics, which are proportional and return a plethora of parties. There, the disintegration of the leftist class struggle into identity politics was effortlessly reflected in parties for the environment, animals’ rights, digital privacy, anti-corruption, secession, womens’ rights, leaving or entering the EU, nationalism, pensioners’ rights, etc etc etc. Once all those cats have gotten out of the bag, they can’t be herded back all to easily. The leftists aren’t coming home to roost. They’re out there, doing their very individual thing, absorbed in the freedom afforded them by their electoral system.
At this point, you might be wondering what this analysis makes of parties like Syriza and Podemos, substantial left-wing groups in proportionally representative systems.
Syriza came to power in 2015 on the back of grim disapproval of the eurozone’s treatment of Greece. National politicians were seen as corrupt henchmen of large business, caring more about keeping face and holding their seats than representing the people. (Nothing is new under the sun, and this feeling seems to well up every time financial crises occur. It may be a roughly accurate picture, but people are willing to let it slide if there’s money to be made.) Podemos was empowered by a weaker form of the same policy.
Those parts of Spain that have a better time, economically, aren’t as susceptible to this mood. In Catalonia, the richest region of Spain, anti-establishment parties haven’t had much success, and the coalition of left-wing causes, CUP, is the region’s smallest party. Its moderate economic troubles have been channeled into a secessionist movement. Its campaign promises to free the region from the corrupt Madrid elite.
Having skirted the economic hellfire of Greece, Spain’s Podemos is now more focused on anti-corruption than anti-austerity. Italy’s M5S and Iceland’s Pirate Party have the same emphasis — and they also try to bring new people, fresh faces, into power. (Their e-democracy platforms, while interesting, don’t seem to be catching on as a credible alternative to representation.) Syriza, on the other hand, was made up of several left-wing parties, with plenty of established politicians on board. It wasn’t about the personalities of the establishment, but about its economic policies.
As Syriza learned, winning an election isn’t enough. Once in government, the bureaucracy of Greece and the EU conspired to undermine its anti-austerity platform, until nothing remained for its ministers but capitulation to foreign demands.
Getting the Party Started
Gaining power is only helpful if you can wield it. Corbyn’s task (Sanders having been defeated) is to transform his party into what it once was — a democratic and representative tool of working people. Once he has, he’s disposable. Britain will have the machine to transform popular needs into political power, and the persons fronting it won’t be what matters.
The fundamental truth of politics is that it isn’t about personalities. It’s about societal forces. The reason Corbyn’s past matters today is that he’s currently not really a representative of the people. Until his party becomes properly democratic, he needs foot soldiers to keep him safely in office. He’s their consensus candidate because they trust him, which is why his personality and history matters for now.
The lesson for other European radicals is that leftism is a plausible strategy in theory, but that their institutions — the old social democratic parties — won’t implement it. Nobody believes PASOK, PSOE, SPD, SPÖ or PS will deliver thorough reform, except in favor of business. Possibly a credible and principled member of such a party hasn’t left it for her or his favored minority cause, and is available as a tool for reforming the party. If so, the task will be to convince voters of the permanent opposition parties, that have never sullied themselves with actual governance, to come back. If not, we’re going back to the drawing board.