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Socialism's comeback

At the beginning of the century, the chances of socialism making a return looked close to zero. Yet now, all around Europe, the red flag is flying again.


"If socialism signifies a political and economic system in which the government controls a large part of the economy and redistributes wealth to produce social equality, then I think it is safe to say the likelihood of its making a comeback any time in the next generation is close to zero," wrote Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, in Time magazine in 2000.

He should take a trip around Europe today.

Make no mistake, socialism - pure, unadulterated socialism, an ideology that was taken for dead by liberal capitalists - is making a strong comeback. Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not.

The parties in question offer policies which mark a clean break from the Thatcherist agenda that many of Europe's centre-left parties have embraced over the past 20 years. They advocate renationalisation of privatised state enterprises and a halt to further liberalisation of the public sector. They call for new wealth taxes to be imposed and for a radical redistribution of wealth. They defend the welfare state and the rights of all citizens to a decent pension and free health care. They strongly oppose war - and any further expansion of Nato.

Most fundamentally of all, they challenge an economic system in which the interests of ordinary working people are subordinated to those of capital.

Nowhere is this new leftward trend more apparent than in Germany, home to the meteoric rise of Die Linke ("The Left"), a political grouping formed only 18 months ago - and co-led by the veteran socialist "Red" Oskar Lafontaine, a long-standing scourge of big business. The party, already the main opposition to the Christian Democrats in eastern Germany, has made significant inroads into the vote for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in elections to western parliaments this year, gaining representation in Lower Saxony, Hamburg and Hesse. Die Linke's unapologetically socialist policies, which include the renation alisation of electricity and gas, the banning of hedge funds and the introduction of a maximum wage, chime with a population concerned at the dismantling of Germany's mixed economic model and the adoption of Anglo-Saxon capitalism - a shift that occurred while the SPD was in government.

An opinion poll last year showed that 45 per cent of west Germans (and 57 per cent of east Germans) consider socialism "a good idea"; in October, another poll showed that Germans overwhelmingly favour nationalisation of large segments of the economy. Two-thirds of all Germans say they agree with all or some of Die Linke's programme.

It's a similar story of left-wing revival in neighbouring Holland. There the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), which almost trebled its parliamentary representation in the most recent general election (2006), and which made huge gains in last year's provincial elections, continues to make headway.

Led by a charismatic 41-year-old epidemiologist, Agnes Kant, the SP is on course to surpass the Dutch Labour Party, a member of the ruling conservative-led coalition, as the Netherlands' main left-of centre grouping.

The SP has gained popularity by being the only left-wing Dutch parliamentary party to campaign for a "No" vote during the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty and for its opposition to large-scale immigration, which it regards as being part of a neoliberal package that encourages flexible labour markets.

The party calls for a society where the values of "human dignity, equality and solidarity" are most prominent, and has been scathing in its attacks on what it describes as "the culture of greed", brought about by "a capitalism based on inflated bonuses and easy money". Like Die Linke, the SP campaigns on a staunchly anti-war platform - demanding an end to Holland's role as "the US's lapdog".

In Greece, the party on the up is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the surprise package in last year's general election. As public opposition to the neoliberal econo mic policies of the ruling New Democracy government builds, SYRIZA's opinion-poll ratings have risen to almost 20 per cent - putting it within touching distance of PASOK, the historical left-of-centre opposition, which has lurched sharply to the right in recent years. SYRIZA is particularly popular with young voters: its support among those aged 35 and under stands at roughly 30 per cent in the polls, ahead of PASOK.

In Norway, socialists are already in power; the ruling "red-green" coalition consists of the Socialist Left Party, the Labour Party and the Centre Party. Since coming to power three years ago, the coalition - which has been labelled the most left-wing government in Europe, has halted the privatisation of state-owned companies and made further development of the welfare state, public health care and improving care for the elderly its priorities.

The success of such forces shows that there can be an electoral dividend for left-wing parties if voters see them responding to the crisis of modern capitalism by offering boldly socialist solutions. Their success also demonstrates the benefits to electoral support for socialist groupings as they put aside their differences to unite behind a commonly agreed programme.

For example, Die Linke consists of a number of internal caucuses - or forums - including the "Anti-Capitalist Left", "Communist Platform" and "Democratic Socialist Forum". SYRIZA is a coalition of more than ten Greek political groups. And the Dutch Socialist Party - which was originally called the Communist Party of the Netherlands, has successfully brought socialists and communists together to support its collectivist programme.

It is worth noting that those European parties of the centre left which have not fully embraced the neoliberal agenda are retaining their dominant position. In Spain, the governing Socialist Workers' Party has managed to maintain its broad left base and was re-elected for another four-year term in March, with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero promising a "socialist economic policy" that would focus on the needs of workers and the poor.

There are exceptions to the European continent's shift towards socialism. Despite the recent election of leftist Martine Aubry as leader of the French Socialist Party, the French left has been torn apart by divisions, at the very moment when it could be exploiting the growing unpopularity of the Sarkozy administration.

And, in Britain, despite opinion being argu ably more to the left on economic issues than at any time since 1945, few are calling for a return to socialism.

The British left, despite promising initiatives such as September's Convention of the Left in Manchester, which gathered representatives from several socialist groups, still remains fragmented and divided. The left's espousal of unrestricted or loosely controlled immigration is also, arguably, a major vote loser among working-class voters who should provide its core support. No socialist group in Britain has as yet articulated a critique of mass immigration from an anti-capitalist and anti-racist viewpoint in the way the Socialist Party of the Netherlands has.

And even if a Die Linke-style coalition of progressive forces could be built and put on a formal footing in time for the next general election, Britain's first-past-the-post system provides a formidable obstacle to change.

Nevertheless, the prognosis for socialism in Britain and the rest of Europe is good. As the recession bites, and neoliberalism is discredited, the phenomenon of unequivocally socialist parties with clear, anti-capitalist, anti-globalist messages gaining ground, and even replacing "Third Way" parties in Europe, is likely to continue.

Even in Britain, where the electoral system grants huge advantage to the established parties, pressure on Labour to jettison its commitment to neoliberal policies and to adopt a more socialist agenda is sure to intensify.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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Cut off: how austerity relates to our mental health

What is the human cost of cutting public spending? We meet those at the sharp end of austerity to find out what it means for their mental health.

When Mark Wood was found dead in his home in August 2013 it could have been just another tragic, but private, event for one family. But it wasn’t. His death came a few months after his disability benefits had been cut because he had been declared “fit for work” by the assessors appointed by the government to implement its “back-to-work” strategy. When his body was discovered he weighed just 5st 8lbs.

His sister Cathie said that 44-year-old Mark had struggled to live on just £40 a week after his disability and housing benefits were cut. She says that his ongoing mental health problems, including anxiety, obsessive traits and an eating disorder, were seriously aggravated by the extra stress. A letter to the Jobcentre written by Mark’s GP at the time his benefits were being cut was presented at the inquest into his death. In it, his doctor cautioned that Mark was “absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever”. At the inquest, the GP told the coroner that, in his view, the loss of benefits was an “accelerating factor” in Mark’s decline and eventual death.

The circumstances surrounding Mark’s death hit the UK headlines after his family launched a campaign calling on the government to rethink its cuts and other austerity-driven policy reforms. Yet his case is far from isolated. People have died from physical illnesses that have got worse after being subject to a Work Capability Assessment or having their benefits cut, and some have even taken their own lives.

In August 2015, after a number of Freedom of Information requests, the government released mortality statistics on people who had died after being declared fit for work. The data did not cover how they died, and the government warned against any causal links being made between the deaths and the assessments, but the episode prompted calls for ministers to commission analysis so that any potential connections could be understood.

In the UK, suicide rates rose in 2011 and 2012 (the most recent data available). Men especially seem to be at risk: the male suicide rate is the highest it’s been since 2001 and, for men between the ages of 45 and 59, the highest since 1981. After five years of austerity in the UK – and with billions of pounds more of budget cuts on the way – families, charities, mental health professionals, campaigners and researchers have been highlighting what they regard as the profound effects of austerity on mental health. In May this year, the chief executive of one of the biggest mental health charities in Britain warned that cuts to service provision along with welfare reforms tied to austerity were “driving people to the edge”.

But what evidence is there for a link between economic difficulties and mental ill health? What is it about UK austerity measures – namely cuts and changes to public services put in place to reduce government borrowing – that is raising so many alarm bells when it comes to mental wellbeing? And what lies in store if the direction of travel stays the same? 

Hitting home

Above a row of shops in a bustling high street in south London are the offices of CoolTan Arts, a grassroots mental health charity. Inside is a small group of men and women, sipping tea and eating biscuits around the kitchen table.

Everyone here has first-hand experience of living with mental health problems and some have multiple disabilities. When we meet, the UK’s general election has just taken place and everyone present is anxious about what will happen. The new Conservative majority government has pledged to shrink social security spending by an additional £12bn – on top of the billions already cut since 2010. In July 2015, the Chancellor’s second Budget in four months outlined plans for a raft of new reforms, including a freeze on working-age benefits for four years and cuts to Employment and Support Allowance for new claimants deemed capable of “work-related activity”.

People living with mental health problems are among the vulnerable groups that have found themselves at the sharp end of austerity measures introduced after the biggest recession and worst recovery in almost a century.

The cuts to mental health budgets and changes to the benefits system, including tough “back-to-work” policies ushered in by the coalition government formed in 2010, are never far from the minds of those at CoolTan. Punitive financial sanctions, where proportions of benefits are withheld (sometimes for years if people can’t comply with strict rules for finding a job), have been adding to ever-greater anxiety.

“My worst enemy is the postman,” Adam* says, describing what it’s like waiting to hear if he has been sanctioned. “When I hear the letterbox go, I tell you it’s just like earthquakes. I can’t bear it.” Often, Adam says, he doesn’t open the envelopes when alone because he is terrified of having a panic attack. “What they don’t realise is they keep putting you through the mill.”

With fewer places to turn for help, George* says he fears for the future. The others around the table nod. They agree that, in a climate of continual cuts and political rhetoric that classifies people who don’t work as outcasts, they would be “lost” without the help of CoolTan, collateral damage in a society that no longer values them.

The experiences of the people at this one small charity are far from an anomaly. Research published in September by Mind, the UK’s largest mental health charity, reported that for people with mental health problems the government’s flagship back-to-work scheme, the Work Programme, made their distress worse in 83 per cent of cases.

My own research interviewing hundreds of people across the UK during the first wave of austerity produced consistently similar insights. I encountered people, usually but not always in more deprived areas, living in daily dread of losing their benefits, homes, livelihoods and, in some cases, their ability to cope as the mental strain overwhelmed them.

Typical comments people made in interviews between 2012 and 2015 include this from Dec*, a single parent in Luton who was struggling to find work. “There’s people who are suicidal,” he told me, holding back tears. “There’s people with mental health problems – and if they didn’t have mental issues before, they have them now because they are being so degraded.”

And this from Maria, a severely disabled young woman from London who required 24-hour support: “There were many occasions when I wanted to stop existing and didn’t know how I would get through the day,” she said, explaining how she felt after being told by her local council that funds were being cut and that she had to be reassessed for care.

Both the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed in 2010 and the Conservative government in power since the 2015 election have defended cuts in a number of areas, including welfare, as being necessary in order to tackle government borrowing.

They have also said that the most vulnerable are offered protection. Responding to concerns raised about the mental stress associated with changes to welfare, a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “It’s important we don’t simply write off people who have a health condition to a life on benefits, which is something that has happened in the past.

“We provide unconditional support to those who can’t work, and jobs support to those who can – for example through the £40m we’re investing in Jobcentres for people with mental health conditions. Our reforms are fixing the welfare system to ensure it promotes work, helps people lift themselves out of poverty and puts public spending on a more sustainable footing.”

The price of austerity

No matter where in the world you are, look at the research and the evidence is clear: economic strain contributes to mental health difficulties – especially during recessions, when unemployment and poverty tend to jump.

What’s more, people already living with mental health difficulties are likely to suffer disproportionately in times of recession – not just because funding for services might be cut, but also because they are at higher risk of losing their jobs.

The so-called Great Recession showed just how serious and widespread the impact of economic turmoil on mental health could be. One US study found a “significant and sustained” increase in major depression among adults between 2005–06 and 2011–12, during which time millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes.

Another study exploring the effects of the 2008 financial crash reached some stark conclusions. Analysing data from 24 EU countries, the USA and Canada, the researchers reported that, by 2011, the economic crisis had already led to over 10,000 more suicides than would have been expected – which they called a “conservative estimate”. The downward trend in suicide rates seen in the EU before 2007 went into reverse when the financial crisis hit, rising 6.5 per cent by 2009. In the US the rate increased by 4.8 per cent over the same period.

Yet the study also showed that the trends were not uniform: many countries did not see any increase in suicide rates. The researchers suggested that a range of interventions – from back-to-work programmes to prescriptions for antidepressants – may reduce the risk of suicide during future economic downtowns.

What of the specific effects of large-scale government cuts? In The Body Economic, Sanjay Basu and David Stuckler examined health and economic data over decades, concluding that austerity was bad for both physical and mental health. “If austerity were tested like a medication in a clinical trial, it would have been stopped long ago, given its deadly side effects… One need not be an economic ideologue – we certainly aren’t – to recognize that the price of austerity can be calculated in human lives,” they wrote in the New York Times.

They went on to argue that countries that have chosen stimulus over austerity, such as Germany, Sweden and Iceland, have had better health outcomes than countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, where austerity measures have been used. “If suicides were an unavoidable consequence of economic downturns this would just be another story about the human toll of the Great Recession,” they concluded. “But it isn’t so.”

Greece – a country with traditionally lower suicide rates than other European nations – has felt the impact of austerity more than most. A landmark study led by Professor Charles Branas of the University of Pennsylvania incorporated a 30-year month-by-month analysis of suicides in Greece, ending in 2012. The researchers looked at possible links between suicide data and particular prosperity- and austerity-related events over the three decades, including the acceptance of Greece into the EU, the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and the passing of austerity measures by the government.

While cautious not to link the cause directly to austerity, the researchers found “a significant, abrupt and sustained increase” in suicides following austerity-related events like announcements of spending cuts and violent protests against them. Across the decades studied, 2012 was the peak year for suicides in Greece.

Warning signs

From as early as 2011, the charities Sane and the Depression Alliance were reporting concerns about links between financial woes, austerity policies and rising stress and depression.

Many organisations, including one run by disability activists, began flagging up how a plethora of local government cuts and welfare reforms such as the Work Capability Assessment were creating unnecessary and sometimes intolerable stress for both physically disabled and mentally ill people.

The Work Capability Assessment in particular was generating widespread tension, according to many frontline welfare workers and campaigners. The reasons were complex and multiple. Among them was, as in the case of Mark Wood, the fact that the assessment did not take into account medical evaluations by GPs before decisions were made about a person’s fitness for work. The assessments often led to a reduction in benefit payments. So many decisions were being overturned on appeal that campaigners called for a complete overhaul of the system.

Nick Dilworth is a frontline welfare advice worker and longstanding critic of the government’s back-to-work strategy who also monitors and analyses welfare statistics. He summed up the reality of dealing with the consequences: “People are coming in with multiple problems. You get grown men crying. What you see are broken lives.”

In addition, sanctions, which were causing significant stress, soared after 2010, while Jobcentre workers began speaking out about what they say was an increasingly punitive regime that was adding to the mental stress of both claimants and workers. As Angela Neville, a Jobcentre worker who went on to write a play about it, explained to me in February 2015: “From my own experience, staff are subjected to constant and aggressive pressure to meet and exceed targets. Colleagues would leave team meetings crying.” On the fallout after sanctions were applied, she said: “It was very distressing to have customers literally without food, without heat, without resources – and these are unwell [and] disabled customers.”

Picking up the pieces

Mental health services in the UK are notoriously underfunded and are often referred to as a “Cinderella service”. According to the Centre for Economic Performance, mental health services receive just 13 per cent of the total NHS budget, while mental illness is responsible for 23 per cent of the loss of years of healthy life caused by all illness nationwide. Under the coalition government of 2010–15 there were numerous moves to place mental health at the top of the wider health agenda. A variety of pledges and initiatives were made, many championed in particular by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Proposals that included, for the first time, specific waiting-time targets for people seeking treatment from mental health services were widely seen as a step forward. So too was a commitment to invest more in young people’s mental health provision.

However, mental health provision was hit hard and early by austerity measures. Despite rising demands for help, including from people in crisis or feeling suicidal who were turning up at A&E departments ill-equipped to deal with them, mental health services and the people relying on them were feeling the impact. Organisations from Oxfam to activist groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts and War on Welfare warned of an unprecedented “perfect storm” of falling incomes, rising costs and the removal of vital safety nets, including for mental health and disability, just when the pressure on individuals and families was skyrocketing.

The numbers back this up. In 2011, three years after the financial crisis, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants rose sharply, up 43 per cent on the previous year. One investigation found that more than 2,000 acute mental health beds were lost in England between 2011 and 2013. This meant that many people in crisis who didn’t have a safe place to be had to be transported hundreds of miles to wherever a bed became available. Some patients were even held in police cells.

By 2015, funding for mental health services was estimated to have fallen in real terms by 8.25 per cent over four years. Three-quarters of children and young people with a mental health issue could not access treatment when they needed it. Charities warned that this was also storing up problems for the future because it prevented early intervention, something proven to be crucial for young people’s recovery prospects. In June 2015, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, who as Minister for Health until the election in May was a key proponent of improving investment in mental health, warned that if the new government failed to stick to pledges to increase funding, mental health would remain “the poor relation” in the health system.

Meanwhile it was reported that calls to mental health helplines from people citing financial problems shot up in line with personal indebtedness. Reports, including a number from the Centre for Welfare Reform, catalogued how policies such as the “bedroom tax” (where benefits can be reduced if someone is deemed to have a “spare” bedroom in their council or housing association home) were “savaging” people’s mental health. GPs reported a surge in patients with stress and anxiety due to worsening economic predicaments and joblessness.

On the front line of mental health, the strain of five years of austerity became such that hundreds of health professionals took to writing to newspapers about it. In one highly critical letter to the Guardian on the government’s public health record, senior physicians linked austerity policies to rising suicides, concluding that “over the last five years, there have been avoidable deaths and much unnecessary damage to health”.

In another letter, published just before the 2015 election, 442 professionals ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists wrote: “The past five years have seen a radical shift in the kinds of issues generating distress in our clients: increasing inequality and outright poverty, families forced to move against their wishes, and, perhaps most important, benefits claimants (including disabled and ill people) and those seeking work being subjected to a quite new, intimidatory kind of disciplinary regime.”

Psychologists Against Austerity, a new alliance of mental health professionals, had formed with the aim of directly challenging the cuts and welfare changes that they said were adding to mental distress. The group produced a briefing paper that includes five “austerity ailments” it believes contribute to worsening mental despair. These are: humiliation and shame, instability and insecurity, isolation and loneliness, being trapped or feeling powerless, and fear and distrust. The authors conclude: “Mental health problems are being created in the present, and further problems are being stored for the future.”

One group of researchers believes that a serious political-cultural shift is taking place within the welfare system, and that it is having serious ramifications for mental health. In a paper published in 2015, Dr Lynne Friedli and colleagues documented their findings on the impact of back-to-work policies, notably psychological assessments of unemployed individuals’ fitness for work.

“Psychological explanations for unemployment… isolate, blame, and stigmatise unemployed people. They reinforce myths about ‘cultures of worklessness’,” Frieldli wrote. “They obscure the realities of the UK labour market and the political choices that underpin it.”

Life and death

When the impacts of austerity are discussed in the UK, deaths feature prominently. Like Mark Wood, some of the people who have died had a history of mental health problems. Others didn’t. And there are many, many stories. In one case, a man doused himself in petrol outside a Jobcentre after being declared fit for work and experiencing benefits delays. Police arrived in time to save him.

A woman died two days after trying to take her own life. Her doctor told the inquest that a letter stating that her incapacity benefits were to be withdrawn had precipitated the suicide attempt.

A pensioner in his 70s was believed to have killed himself due to fears about the “bedroom tax”. Witnesses testified to the inquest that he was frightened by news reports that said people might lose their homes if they couldn’t pay it.

The issue of deaths related to welfare reform and austerity, be they a result of suicide or otherwise, is complex and controversial. There have been escalating calls from families and campaigners for a full public investigation into deaths that followed cuts to benefits or the implementation of sanctions in order to find out what connections there may be. And when, in September this year, a coroner in north London concluded that the suicide in 2013 of 60-year-old disabled man Michael O’Sullivan was a direct result of having been wrongly found fit for work, there were yet more calls for the Department for Work and Pensions to overhaul fitness-for-work assessments. The coroner said: “[His] anxiety and depression were long-term problems but the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment… as being fit for work, and his view of the likely consequences of that.” 

Journalist John Pring, who lives with a mental illness and runs the website Disability News Service, has been one of those labouring for full disclosure of “internal peer reviews” conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions into deaths (49 cases had been reviewed by June 2015). Some details have been released, he says, but not full reports, which would facilitate a better understanding of the circumstances and, he argues, how to prevent future deaths.

More research and better data are needed to ascertain fully the connections between recessions and austerity and suicide, but mental health strains are clearly exacerbated by economic factors, according to Joe Ferns, Director of Policy and Research at Samaritans.

Part of the problem, he says, is that stresses such as financial pressures or losing a job make people feel “disempowered” and “less able to cope”. But people can be affected by the community around them too. “What the research does show,” says Ferns, “is that people living in deprived areas are about ten times more likely to die by suicide… I think it’s fair to say that an economic recession creates ripples. The social impacts spread far wider and last far longer than the economic ripples.”

However, more research will take time and, as epidemiologist Sanjay Basu has pointed out, there is already considerable evidence of serious and deleterious effects, which, as a matter of urgency, require robust policy responses, not least because people’s lives are on the line. Basu says his work has persuaded him that the stakes of austerity for mental health are very high indeed. “I think the real decision for us is whether we want to pay now or pay later. I think we can either pay now in terms of creating the social safety nets in order to avoid a real dismantling of some of the key parts of our communities or we’ll face the consequence for many years.”

Charities, healthcare professionals, academics and those on the front line agree: act now, or suffer more later. The Department of Health told me that they are tackling “historic underfunding” in mental health, increasing investment in the area by £300 million last year. They mentioned that “more people than ever before” are receiving talking therapies and that the government’s Suicide Prevention Strategy is backed by £1.5m funding for research.

But will this be enough to stop people dying because, at least in part, of the UK’s austerity measures? At CoolTan Arts, one woman makes a point that’s hard to ignore. “I think it’s going to get much worse,” says Jane*. “This government has got another full term and you don’t know what their plans are.”

Back in Oxford, Mark Wood’s sister Cathie says there is only one thing to do: keep fighting. “We are now trying to get answers and just keep the pressure up so people know the human cost of the cuts, and that we are becoming a crueller, more backward society in terms of how we treat our most vulnerable people.”

This article was originally published by Mosaic.

* Some interviewees’ names have been changed.

Author: Mary O’Hara; Editor: Chrissie Giles; Fact checker: Francine Almash; Copyeditor: Tom Freeman; Art director: Peta Bell; Illustrator: Alexander James Wood


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Jeremy Corbyn and the politics of catastrophe

If the Blairites are beached in the past, Jeremy Corbyn addresses a non-existent world.

If there is a common theme in the reaction to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn it is that he is a throwback to the politics of a long-gone age. Twenty-first-century politics – we have been encouraged to believe – isn’t driven by ideological conflict. Mainstream parties are agreed on the para­meters governing how policies are set; a type of democratic capitalism is the framework within which these parties compete to deliver shared social goals. In some countries new forces may have emerged that do not accept this consensus – parties in many ways quite different from one another but loosely described as populist, such as Syriza and Podemos on the left, Golden Dawn on the far right and less easily classifiable forces such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, while in America Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is having an unexpectedly large impact. Yet these developments are ascribed to the particular problems of the eurozone, which are believed to be manageable, and in the case of Trump to the difficulties the Republicans face in coming up with a candidate with broad appeal. According to this conventional wisdom, there is no reason to suppose that any shift in the constellation of political forces is under way in western democracies.

Corbyn’s decisive victory in the election for the Labour leadership plants a question mark over this assumption. The Labour Party has played an important role in British politics since Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government in 1924. The party has undergone periods of upheaval, and for anyone who was around at the time, it is tempting to view Corbyn’s rise as a rerun of events in 1983, when under the leadership of Michael Foot it produced a manifesto, echoed in Corbyn’s policy statements today and advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EU and large-scale nationalisation, which the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman called “the longest suicide note in history”. In the event, Labour didn’t expire, but it was incapable of mounting any challenge to Margaret Thatcher and remained out of power until Tony Blair formed his first government in 1997 – in all, a period of nearly 20 years. Now that Corbyn has won, it is easy to conclude that the result for Labour will be no different.

In fact, the stakes are higher this time. In 1983 Labour still had its working-class bastions in Scotland and the north, sources of support that have respectively disappeared and are diminishing. Contrary to the Blairite mantra, there is no way forward in trying to reclaim the safety of the centre ground. In Britain as in other countries at the present time, there is no safe centre ground. Labour cannot accommodate post-Thatcherite individualism in the south of England as well as the party’s working-class supporters in the north who are attracted by Ukip, at the same time as it struggles to regain voters in a leftish, nationalist Scotland. The trick of triangulation will no longer work.


Moreover, Labour is no longer the historic party that shaped Britain for generations. It would be foolish to deny any achievements to the governments formed by Blair and Brown; but the effect of New Labour was to hollow out the party, emptying it of its internal culture and making it the instrument of the leader of the day – and Corbyn will be a new type of leader. When Michael Foot became leader he had experience in government and as leader of the House of Commons. Tony Benn, who stood for the position of deputy leader in 1981 and helped produce the split in the party that kept it out of power for so many years, had extensive experience of government. Some are comparing Corbyn with George Lansbury, who led Labour between 1932 and 1935; but Lansbury had served as commissioner of works under MacDonald. Unlike any of these predecessors, Corbyn has no experience of office and his record in parliament is that of permanent opposition. By selecting him the party has taken a leap into the dark.

A heavy responsibility must lie with Ed Miliband and his advisers. Not only did they lead the party to defeat by directing their campaign to a country yearning for an egalitarian type of capitalism – a country that doesn’t exist, as I wrote in the New Statesman in February – but by changing the rules of the leadership election they set in motion a process that has changed the party irrevocably. The Conservatives extended the vote to party members in the leadership contest that produced Iain Duncan Smith; but they left MPs with the prerogative of selecting two candidates from whom members would choose. In contrast, Labour Party members have now imposed a leader on MPs. Miliband and his advisers have created a new party more definitively than did the architects of New Labour. Labour is now more like an extra-parliamentary body, with power in the hands of activists. It is a body that Corbyn – and any subsequent leader – will find difficulty controlling.


Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries. Corbyn is one of the unintended consequences of this project and its recurrent crises. In Britain the effect of Thatcher’s policies was to undermine hierarchies in society and her own party and weaken old patterns of voting, while the attempt to construct a global free market has come unstuck on differences in political systems and disparities in economic development. The architects of the project assumed that, as the world converted to capitalism, it would also embrace liberal democracy. It was an assumption with little basis in history, and the social disruption that goes with the spread of the market has actually produced a plethora of illiberal and fundamentalist movements.

Corbyn is part of a new politics that is developing alongside the current crises of globalisation. As such, it is a response to real-world problems. The trouble is that Cobynite solutions belong in the realm of fantasy. At the same time, like some manifestations of this new politics in other countries, his rise has given voice to some old and highly toxic attitudes.



The 1990s, when the Blair project took shape, were years of complacency. It was widely believed that with the collapse of the Soviet Union only one system remained in place: the mix of representative democracy and managed capitalism that existed in Europe, the US and other western countries. Post-communist Russia might be experiencing deep depression as it struggled to implement western-led policies of economic shock therapy, while a version of capitalism was booming in China under communist auspices. But the contradictions from which these countries were suffering would be resolved as they were forced to embrace the sole system that combined high levels of productivity with respect for modern aspirations to self-government. A global middle class was emerging, carrying with it aspirations for political freedom and personal autonomy, which would, in time, make the prevailing type of western capitalism universal.

These attitudes had more than a little in common with those Maynard Keynes analysed in 1919 when, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, he described how in the age that came to an end in August 1914 an affluent Londoner

. . . could . . . proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference . . . he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalisation of which was nearly complete in practice.

A similar sense of normalcy existed in the 1990s. There were some clouds on the horizon. More than economic failure, a feature of the Soviet system throughout its existence, it was nationalism and religion – in the form of defeat by western-supported jihadists in Afghanistan and loss of control in Poland and the Baltic states – that supplied the catalyst for its implosion. The wars that raged in the Balkans throughout the 1990s demonstrated that these forces continued to be potent sources of conflict. But they had little place in the western model that was supposed to be spreading globally, so ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia could be written off as a sign of backwardness. The first Gulf war of 1991, a resource war in which western states protected oil supplies without having any larger goals in the region, had on its own terms been successful and could be safely forgotten.

The 9/11 attacks destroyed this sense of safety, but the belief that democratic capitalism was the only system that could in future be legitimate wasn’t abandoned. The global campaign against terrorism which was launched after the attacks was touted as being also a war for freedom and democracy. In practice, it meant backing Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes in the Gulf – from which much of the funding for the fundamentalist ideologies that infuse al-Qaeda and Isis has emanated – and turning a blind eye to the role of rogue elements in the state of Pakistan, another western ally, in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even in governmental circles, it is now accepted that this “war on terror” – a term that has been banished from the official lexicon – was a ruinously expensive failure.

The disastrous impact of the Iraq war is still unfolding. Labour’s Blairite wing has tended to pass over the subject as quickly as possible. But the promotion of a western model by military force was an integral part of the project of marketisation, while the failure of regime change was pivotal in Labour’s decline. Not only did the war create a failed state, large parts of which are now controlled by Islamic State forces. Compounded by the situation in Libya, an ungoverned space as a result of Britain and France toppling Muammar al-Gaddafi, and by the ongoing civil war in Syria, regime change in Iraq has magnified the flow of refugees into Europe, flows that can only increase if Bashar al-Assad is finally overthrown and the state of Syria disintegrates completely. Any idea that a western model of democracy can be installed in these conditions is wilful delusion.

Estimated as ranging between $1trn and $3trn, the cost of the Iraq war may well have contributed to the financial crisis that erupted in 2007. But the crash signalled a larger breach in the process of globalisation that has been under way over the past few decades. As globalisation has advanced, middle-class living standards in advanced societies have stagnated and the prospects of young people have contracted; many are mired in debt. Where poverty has been much reduced, as in China, rising incomes have been combined with greater insecurity. The world’s middle classes are turning to extreme political movements, such as the French Front National and America’s Tea Party, while giving their support to authoritarian regimes (like Vladimir Putin’s) that promise them safety. When globalisation is in trouble, floundering middle classes and extremist politics go together.

Here, it is useful to distinguish between, on the one hand, globalisation as a technological process, in which the world’s economies are becoming increasingly interconnected and which is unstoppable, and, on the other, the global free market promoted by neoliberal ideologues, which – like the internationalised economy that Keynes described, which fell apart in the years following the First World War – could well break down. Nowadays it is not uncommon for neoliberalism to be dismissed as a kind of ideological phantom in its own right. It’s true that the term may be too broadly applied. Hayek and Friedman were neoliberals in that they believed in a free market with minimum government intervention: Blair is a neoconservative who believes in a strong state and does not hesitate to subordinate market imperatives to political ends. But neoliberals and neoconservatives do share one crucial belief. For both, anything that stands in the way of democratic capitalism is “on the wrong side of history”.

This was the mindset that produced the Iraq war. Of course, geopolitical strategies to do with oil played a significant role. But lying behind these stratagems was an ideological faith that if only Saddam Hussein’s despotism was removed, a modern democracy would rise from the rubble. This ruling world-view equates modernity with the rise of the market, and forgets the many other movements – some humane and civilised, others horribly malign – that have developed alongside and against the spread of market society.

The same mindset was on display in Blair’s recent attack on Scottish nationalism as “the politics of the caveman”. Blindness to the growing significance of nationalism is one of the things Blair shares with Ed Miliband. A failure to grasp that Scotland was hiving off to become a separate political culture was a crucial factor in Labour’s defeat in May. If the party is now on a course of ­collapse akin to that of the Liberal Party when it was undone by Irish home rule nearly a century ago, one reason is that ­Labour’s leading lights have clung to a ­progressive narrative in which nationalism is a declining force.


The belief that nationalism is premodern is historically illiterate. The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War and inaugurated the nation state, was signed in 1648. Later, the nation state would become the principal focus of the demand for popular government, and despite many attempts to overcome that fact, national governments continue to mark the upper limit of democratic accountability. Whether of the civic variety that prevails in Scotland or the ethnic sort that wreaked such havoc in central Europe and the Balkans, nationalism is an expression of enduring human needs for identity and recognition which show no sign of fading away. Nationalism and its pathologies are as much a part of the modern world as the global market, and in many cases the two have been intertwined.

One of the common features of the new political movements commonly described as populist is that they trade on a conflict between a market-driven agenda that requires openness to global flows of capital and people and the workings of democracy, which act to limit these flows. Obeying conflicting imperatives, democracy and global capitalism are not natural allies. The mobility of capital is not matched by that of labour; the European migrant crisis reflects this asymmetry. Aggravated by western policies of regime change that have left zones of war and anarchy in their wake, the struggle of large numbers of people to move from dislocated societies into the relative safety of Europe is not a one-off event, but a feature of globalisation that will continue for generations. The freedom of movement that existed before the First World War was not contested because democracy was limited then and the welfare state almost non-existent. Today, with already large pools of unemployment in a number of countries, the flows of people will contribute to ongoing political radicalisation.

The forms taken by the new politics vary widely. In the United States, Donald Trump’s campaign rehearses some familiar themes of American nativism. Mistrust of China continues a long tradition, as does Trump’s implicit protectionism. What is new is how he has been able to advance by projecting an image of himself as an anti-politician. Helped by his wealth, celebrity and near-universal name recognition, he has also been empowered by a popular American perception that, even more than in the past, government is a game rigged by special interests while the middle classes are ignored.

At the other end of the spectrum, the campaign of Bernie Sanders, a long-serving independent member of Congress who describes himself as a socialist, is also drawing large crowds. Sanders’s platform – which features reducing inequality, fighting climate change and federal measures to promote job creation – could hardly be more different from Trump’s. (Interestingly, both accept that large-scale immigration has ­disturbing implications for American wage levels.) That these two, quite different candidates have evoked such a response suggests widespread disillusion with centrist politics. But disaffection with a dysfunctional system has yet to produce anything like large-scale political revolt.

In parts of the eurozone this point has been reached. The rise of new political forces is a reaction against a regime of austerity in which mainstream parties are seen as complicit. The collapse of the centre has gone hand in hand with a rejection of neoliberalism. It may be too simple to say that the euro has become a neoliberal project, but the cult of austerity has a definite ideological pedigree in Ordoliberalism, an ideology that emphasises the active role of the state in creating conditions that favour market competition, which played a prominent role in the reconstruction of the German economy after the Second World War. Rejecting any programme of minimising government, Ordoliberalism might seem at first sight to be altogether different from neoliberalism. But Ordoliberals have in common with neoliberals a commitment to placing economic policy beyond the reach of democratic politics. In the Ordoliberal view, a regime of strictly observed rules is an indispensable precondition of economic stability. Among these must be stringent rules for balancing budgets and the repayment of debt. Under these rules the regime of austerity can be neither democratically legitimated nor democratically reformed. The effect of imposing this German ideology on the eurozone has been to cede popular legitimacy to radical new movements.

Among the forces that have emerged are some that replay themes resonant of earlier periods in European history. The hateful prejudices expressed by Golden Dawn need no elaboration. But there are noxious strands in other new parties. In Beppe Grillo’s Five Star, an anti-establishment rhetoric of resistance to “the Caste” – the established political class – can, for some of the movement’s members, easily translate into anti-Semitism. Marine Le Pen’s Front National continues to promote a vision of national identity that is framed to exclude sections of the population, including Muslim citizens of France. Outside the eurozone, Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian experiment in what he has described as ­“illiberal democracy” involves mobilising popular sentiment against long-persecuted minorities – Jews, gay people, Roma, Muslims and immigrants. Many on the left have applauded the welcome given to fleeing migrants, particularly by Germany; but the sudden suspension of the Schengen Agreement by the Germans, following the reaction in post-communist Europe, points in a different direction. A process of reversion to the historical mean may be under way, taking Europe back to the politics of the 20th century.



Jeremy Corbyn belongs among the new forces that are emerging in a number of countries at the same time as the break-up of centrist politics. It is the former Blairite ascendancy that is beached in the past. Did anyone really believe that Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership could equip Labour to mount a serious challenge to the Conservatives in 2020? Even if one of them had squeaked through to victory, he or she would still have had to come to terms with Corbyn’s mass following in the party. But it is Corbyn that poses the greatest danger to Labour’s future.

If Ed Miliband addressed his campaign to a non-existent country, Corbyn addresses a non-existent world. At the present time, Cuba is opening the door to the US and a capitalist Vietnam has been discussing military co-operation with the US defence secretary; Iran seems to be seeking some kind of rapprochement with the Great Satan; Russia is ruled by a type of authoritarian crony capitalism, propped up by nationalism and the Orthodox Church, which despite sanctions and a weakening economy appears to enjoy wider popular support than the Soviet system did at any point in its peacetime history; China’s rulers are struggling to keep their experiment in capitalism on track, watched uneasily by western governments whose own versions of capitalism depend heavily on China’s success; while Venezuela is sinking into poverty and chaos under the impact of low oil prices and endemic corruption.

In these conditions, the notion that Britain can strike out alone on a path to socialism is a triumph of whimsy. What would socialism mean? Even if the current phase of globalisation goes into reverse, the technological advance that drives economic change will not slow down. How would eBay, Amazon and Airbnb fit into a Corbynist Britain?

It’s not so much that Corbyn’s outlook is backward-looking as that it has always resisted contact with reality. He has not changed his political stance since the 1970s – a fact many regard as a point in his favour. But the view of politics he professes, which sounds so invigoratingly unorthodox today, was thoroughly commonplace then. The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings. This was never the predominant view in the Labour Party, but for many years something like it permeated the left intelligentsia.

It was this ideology that enabled the Soviet Union to be seen as flawed, mildly repressive and even rather dull, but still essentially benign. Rigorous historical studies that demonstrated the enormous human costs of communism – such as The Great Terror (1968) by the late Robert Conquest – were dismissed as exercises in cold war propaganda. Later, neoconservatives subscribed to a similar view of things with their belief that war may be used to promote grandiose projects of regime change. The principal result in each case has been millions of broken lives. Catastrophic gradualism appeals to a type of mind that prides itself on its tough-mindedness while being invincibly innocent of the forces that drive politics, which include sheer hatred as much as the passion for justice. It may be this mentality that accounts for Corbyn’s links with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Inquiries about these connections have provoked a backlash among his supporters, who regard them as McCar­thyite smears.

But such sympathies are of a piece with the mindset that Orwell diagnosed. There has long been a tendency in the murkier depths of European politics, including sections of the left, to suspend moral judgement in regard to groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers and to excuse anti-Semitism on the grounds that those who display it are involved in legitimate struggles. That this strange tolerance can surface at the top of Labour is new and ruptures the party’s deep links with the British liberal tradition. For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values.

Some observers – such as the old Tory war horse Kenneth Clarke – have opined that Corbyn’s platform could be more electorally appealing in an economic downturn. This may be so, but the loss of Scotland and the need to garner Tory votes in the south will pose insuperable obstacles to a workable majority, and a minority government in coalition with the SNP will remain unpopular with both English and Scottish voters. Even so, Corbyn’s coronation alters British politics in fundamental ways. One example that has not been much discussed – though its importance has been signalled by Chuka Umunna’s departure from the shadow cabinet – concerns Britain’s relations with the EU.

Brexit is the unavoidable logic of Corbyn’s policy agenda. Whatever may be meant by “people’s quantitative easing” – some more radical version of the unconventional policies of money creation that have been pursued since the financial crisis – it would hardly be compatible with Britain’s continued place in the EU. Austerity has in any case shredded the claim (made in the past on the soft left) that European capitalism is more “social” than the Anglo-Saxon variety. Because of the migrant crisis, the In/Out referendum that must occur before the end of 2017 is already a riskier gambit than it was a few months ago. Corbyn’s opting for Brexit would make the outcome even more uncertain.

Corbyn may last longer as leader than many currently suppose. As resignations from the shadow cabinet immediately after his victory showed, he faces strong hostility from the parliamentary party. But he won the leadership contest by a large margin, and any attempt to dislodge him will provoke intense resistance from the grass roots. His supporters may organise to deselect uncooperative MPs, taking advantage of the fact that upcoming constituency boundary changes will produce fewer Labour seats. As the new deputy leader, Tom Watson will be a formidable figure. He may be able to exercise a restraining influence over some of Corbyn’s more far-fetched policies; but his first priority will be to defeat any threat to Corbyn’s position. Labour may descend into a civil war more protracted and damaging than the debacle of the early 1980s.

Another scenario is realistically possible, however. Blairites and centrists may be a spent force that has been routed. In its shift towards becoming an extra-parliamentary party, Labour may already have ceased to be a party of government. By electing Corbyn, Labour may have passed a point from which it will be unable to return.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War