The economic crisis of 2008 looks more and more like a pivot in world history. The worst possibilities of that moment did not materialise: global financial structures did not melt down, and a decade-long great depression did not ensue. But the consequences in Europe have been wrenching all the same: a severe recession followed by long stretches of achingly slow growth; billions of euros expended on bailouts of banks and national governments; a regime of barely relieved austerity imposed on all of Europe by a coalition of conservative ruling parties in Germany and Britain, the most powerful countries in Europe. And, worst of all, a sense within Europe that the EU and much of what it stood for – regimes of free trade and free movement of people orchestrated by only partially accountable governments in Brussels and Strasbourg – were no longer working well enough.
Since 2008, it has become clear that the EU has produced economic winners and losers, the lines running not only between different regions of Europe – north v south, Germans v Greeks – but between different regions of the same country. British citizens in England’s globally dynamic south—London writ large – voted in overwhelming numbers to remain, while those in the country’s left-behind north voted by equal margins to leave.
The sorting out of winners and losers in the globalisation process has been under way for a long time, of course: since the Thatcher revolution. But in the sunny Blairite days it was possible to believe that everyone would be a winner. That belief became unsustainable after 2008. The economic crash discredited the Blairites, and disoriented the Labour Party.
One of the most stunning features of the EU referendum campaign was the failure of a party of Europe to materialise in England, inside or outside the Labour Party. Where, south of the Scottish border, were the 100,000-person-strong marches for Europe, with EU flags flying? Where could one hear the soaring speeches articulating the principles of the EU and extolling its achievements? Why is it so impossible to imagine singing a European anthem with the capacity to arouse internationalist solidarity in the manner that the “Marseillaise” and “Internationale” once did?
This absence had partly to do with the peculiarities of British politics: Labour was led by a Eurosceptic, the Tories by a man in thrall to his party’s Brexit wing. The 2015 general election, meanwhile, had wiped the Liberal Democrats, the last true British believers (along with the Scottish National Party) in the European idea, off the electoral map. But these particularities are symptomatic in their own right of something more fundamental – a conviction that the EU regime was creating too many losers. This conviction has been convulsing politics not only in Britain but also across Europe.
Populisms of the left and right have been surging everywhere, imperilling mainstream parties perceived to be facilitators of the EU status quo. Similar forces have been roiling politics outside the EU, too. The emergence in the United States of the leftist Bernie Sanders and the reactionary Donald Trump, both animated by anti-globalisation politics, mirrors closely the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage in Britain.
Trump has received the lion’s share of attention in Britain, while Sanders has been largely ignored. But Sanders’s achievements were considerable: he won 23 of the 57 Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, attracted 13 million (43 per cent) of the 30 million Democratic votes cast, and raised $230m, almost entirely from small donations averaging a mere $27 apiece. None of these feats was enough to defeat Hillary Clinton, but Sanders’s impressive showing pulled the Democratic Party and Clinton to the left. Sanders has reintroduced the word “socialism” to US politics after a 70-year period when, in effect, it had been banned. His campaign rallies frequently drew more than 10,000 wildly enthusiastic fans, most of them young and white, eager to see, hear and touch this most unlikely of rock stars – a dishevelled, 74-year-old Brooklynite, awkwardly jabbing his finger in the air and calling for revolution. His charisma was as odd as it was unmistakable.
The same could be said of Trump, whose rallies were also large and passionate. Both men shared something beyond magnetism: fury at a regime of global free trade seen as undermining the American working man and woman while advantaging powerful corporations and the political parties that service their needs. Yet Sanders, unlike Trump, refuses to blame immigrants or minorities for America’s misfortune; and he loathes Trump’s strongman tendencies. In the 2016 election, left-wing and right-wing populists have been worlds apart. But they both espouse a belief that elites have rigged economics and politics in a manner that disadvantages ordinary Americans.
The mustering of Bernie’s and Donald’s armies, along with the Brexit vote, may signify that the neoliberal world order which has ruled since the 1980s and since the collapse of the Soviet Union is beginning to unravel. If this is indeed what is happening, there is no way that it is going to unfold in an orderly manner. Nor will its future be decided in Britain alone. The many national elections in European countries in the next year and a half, as well as the one in the US, are going to influence the process profoundly. A lot is at stake. If the left is going to play a role in this process, it must find its voice and develop a programme.
What is to be done?
First, in Britain, Tory-dominated plans for Brexit must be fought vigorously and on multiple fronts. The large demonstrations in London and other cities on 3 September were an encouraging sign. They should be repeated on the first Saturday of every month for the next two years.
This is not to challenge the legitimacy of the Brexit vote – too late for that – but to show the Tories how mobilised and determined the pro-European, pro-left voices in Britain are. A social movement of this sort can influence negotiations with the EU, and can shape the manner in which Brexit will occur.
So much about the EU itself is up in the air. In 12 months, after a bevy of European elections, even a modification of Schengen coming from the heart of Europe, in the form of emergency brakes on migration at times of stress, may become thinkable. There may well be a form of “Brexit” that a pro-European British left can accept and one that a British working class can embrace. All the more reason for a left to identify and promote it.
Second, the left must begin to imagine a different kind of world order, one in which equality has greater purchase than is common in the order in which we now live. The EU has excelled in promoting one kind of equality: an equality of human rights grounded in a commitment to the dignity of every person, irrespective of national origin, religion, or race. But it has not done nearly so well narrowing the economic inequality between classes, regions, or nations. This will not be accomplished easily, especially in an international polity transcending the nation state where the critical political institution that once enabled a broad redistribution of economic resources to occur – a parliament truly representative of the people – has yet to emerge. But developing this sort of vision, and devising a remedy for the EU’s democratic deficit, is precisely the kind of intellectual and political project that
a left worth its salt must engage with.
Third, Jeremy Corbyn is not the man to lead the British left to this future. He is a good man, steadfast in his principles. He deserves credit for bringing hundreds of thousands of new members into the Labour Party. But at this crucial juncture of British history – the most important since 1945 – he has repeatedly proved himself unable to move beyond positions he embraced in the 1980s, to rise above the infighting in his party, and to articulate a programme that can grasp the significance of this moment.
Gary Gerstle is the Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge
This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times