European Socialism: An Identity Crisis?

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By Frederick Brock

Photo by permission from Socialist Party, USA
Photo by permission from Socialist Party, USA

In recent years the socialist movements of Western Europe have been relatively quiet. Europe has experienced a significant economic crisis leading to unrest, uncertainty and usurpation by pre-crisis minority parties. Historically, turbulence such as this has acted as a catalyst for the emergence of radical movements and innovative ideas. This article focuses upon the apparent absence of these movements and ideas in contemporary socialism, considering three countries in detail: France, the United Kingdom and Spain.

This absence of innovation leads to a supposition that there is an identity crisis within the left wing movements of Europe. The renowned historian Hobsbawm purports that the idea of a set left wing identity is in fact incorrect. He sees identity as a negative concept:

We recognize ourselves as us because we are different from them [1]

The left has always been a movement appealing across various social dynamics. It has never, contrary to some belief, existed to force the confrontation of classes but rather to offer universal principles. [2] Yet without an idea of what the European socialist movement is trying to promote, how can it organise, unify and provide alternatives to the political paradigm we live within?

The Historical Precedent

Western Europe is a geographical area synonymous with socialism. Germany was the birth place of Karl Marx, author of Das Capital, one of the most influential books in the socialist movement. The nascence of the term ‘left wing’ stems from France. The representatives of the French Third Estate sat on the left and declared the Third Estate ‘the nation’ against the minority ruling class in 1789. [3] The Third Estate was described at the time as representing the vast majority of the French population, peasants, the lower middle classes and urban artisans. Thus the term left wing became applicable to theory reaching across class boundaries and focussing on areas of society other than the ruling elite.

This was a seminal moment not only in terminology and identity but also in ideology. The French revolution was to awaken the people of Europe to the possibility of a new style of Government. French philosophers such as Auguste Comte and Charles Fourier were among the first to develop theories that later became known as ‘utopian socialism’, in essence; dreams of a left wing future. Marx would later incorporate their theories into his own work.

The United Kingdom provides further example of socialist thought coming out of marked socio-economic change. Left wing movements such as the Chartists, who called for salaried Members of Parliament and the trade unions, who campaigned for shorter working days and so on, developed out of the hostile working conditions of the industrial revolution. The 20th century saw the trade unions repeatedly clashing with the British Government, espousing socialist ideals that went against the establishment’s beliefs.

The 21st century does not offer such dramatic choice of ideology and has not created modern socialist movements. This is surprising when related to the economic context of modern Western Europe.

 The Economic Context

Western Europe experienced the biggest financial crisis in 2008 since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The figures below provide a sense of scale of the economic damage within Europe:

National debt as a percentage of GDP (as of December 2014) [4] Figures surrounding the bailout of banks and nations Figures relating to employment/unemployment [5]
Portugal- 128% The bailout of the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008/9- £46bn [6] Spain has an unemployment rate of over 25%
Italy- 127.9% The bailout of Northern Rock (a British bank)- £3.4bn [7] France has an unemployment rate of 10.2%
Ireland- 123.3% In Spain alone banks had £155.84bn in loans at risk of not being repaid [8] Ireland’s stands at more than 13%
France- 92.2% Existing bailout loans to Greece amount to more than €240bn [9] Greece’s is also over 25%

Contrast the above figures with the knowledge that in countries like the United Kingdom the top 1% owns as much as the poorest 55%. [10] If you look to Europe as a whole there are statistics suggesting that the top 1% holds more than 30% of the wealth available. [11] These staggering discrepancies between the wealth of the rich and poor, alongside the economic crisis taking place in Europe, surely should give socialism the impetus it needs to reform and provide political alternatives?

Socialism in France

France has a left wing party in power; the ‘Socialists’. Led by President Hollande, it has adopted an approach targeting the rich in an effort to balance the budget. Introducing a ‘super tax’ of 75% on revenue over €1 000 000, capping tax loopholes at €10 000 and enforcing higher contributions to pensions rather than raising the retirement age all outwardly speak of socialist values. [12] Yet policies like these seem to have done little to endear him to the French public. His approval ratings, standing at less than 20%, are the lowest of any post war French President. [13] He has failed to provide a broad socialist vision to which the public could have adhered. Instead his ‘super tax’ was rejected by the national courts, declaring it unconstitutional. Hollande has recently presented changes in legislation for labour workers making it easier for companies to fire them or reduce their hours. Furthermore he has his Premier Valls, whose own approval ratings are over 50%, introducing a raft of reforms aimed at cutting taxes for households and businesses and overseeing a €50bn stimulus package. [14] Tax cuts may be popular, but they are not part of any focus on a socialist dream. Hollande has even been accused of ‘disliking the poor’ in his former partner’s book ‘Thank you for this moment’. [15]

Hollande’s Presidency is not only faced with dismal approval ratings but a burgeoning French right, feeding off the unpopularity of the Socialist Party. Marine le Pen’s party, the Front National, has witnessed significant growth during the Socialists’ time in power. Moreover, Sarkozy is contemplating standing for Presidency at the next election. The right is identifying with a growing anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment within France, reflected in their rising approval ratings. [16] The left has no clear stance, moving right in an attempt to win voters back on issues like immigration rather than presenting a clear alternative strategy. The confused position of the Socialist Party over issues such as this lends to the impression of a confused socialist identity within France.

Socialism in the United Kingdom

Image by  Pedro Figueiredo (flickr.com)
Image by Pedro Figueiredo (flickr.com)

The British left is a key example of confused socialist identity. Under New Labour, the political party that ruled the United Kingdom from 1997-2010, the labour party moved to the right. With electoral defeat the party has attempted to distance itself from the more centrist politics of the past and offer a more socialist divergence from the politics of the Conservative party, which currently holds power. This desire to prove ideological difference is, however, appearing problematic for the party.

A fundamental issue the Labour party faces is the apathy of the British public. Voter turnout in the 2001 election was the lowest ever since universal suffrage [17] and from the age of 18-24 the British can accurately be described as the most apathetic group towards politics in the EU. [18] The Labour Party has failed to provide an overarching vision to which people can either relate or choose to support. Instead of engaging with the apathetic public the Labour Party has followed the path of all British mainstream parties of producing policy in response to opinion polls. This ‘knee jerk’ style policy, rather than developing policies out of a vision for the country, leaves the British left under Labour looking indistinguishable for many from the current coalition Government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

A further problem faced by the Labour party is a public doubtful of its ability to provide meaningful change, similar in this respect to voter attitudes towards parties across the European political establishment. [19] Disillusionment with mainstream politics has engendered a feeling of the political class being focussed solely upon re-election and being distanced from the public it is supposed to represent.

For a left wing party theoretically embodying socialist values, Labour is experiencing a critical challenge as to how it is perceived. A recent political storm centred around a Labour Member of Parliament posting a disparaging picture on twitter of a white van. In Britain a white van is often perceived as a symbol of the working class. The Labour Member of Parliament was condemned as being ‘condescending and disrespectful’ [20] towards the public she is supposed to represent. This scandal is representative of the perceived gulf between the political class and the public. With such disassociation prevalent in politics, it is small wonder that the Labour Party struggles to provide a socialist identity whilst some of its members hold such elitist attitudes.

The absence of new socialist thought in a nation of 60 million seems remarkable when placed against the background of the recession. Without clear socialist identity the public are left bereft of a vision in which to place their faith, leaving only apathy and disassociation with the politics of the left in the United Kingdom.

Socialism in Spain

Debate over identity extends further than a singular Northern European dialogue on the ill reception of socialist parties in Western Europe. Spain is still experiencing considerable economic uncertainty and upheaval following the financial crisis. Its unemployment rate of more than 25% is significantly more than any of its Northern European counterparts. Furthermore Spain has been forced to secure a bailout loan of €100bn, although they only spent €41bn of this, in order to restructure and refinance their economy following the crash. [21] The scale of the crisis in this nation is arguably greater than in France or United Kingdom, and so the political reaction appears to have similarly been more extreme.

The rise of Podemos has unsettled the Spanish political establishment. They have a clear socialist identity and are currently predicted to potentially achieve over 20% of the vote at the next election. [22] There have been theories put forward that they are a symptom of the high unemployment rate and act as a party into which protest votes can be funnelled out of anger at the economic situation. Moreover they have been labelled as a cult of personality or even a movement funded by the Venezuelan Government to further its own ends. The governing right wing party, the ‘People’s Party’, has dismissed them as a protest party in an attempt to marginalise Podemos. These theories, however, lack any factual basis.

When considering the statistics related to voting patterns for Podemos there are some factors that are surprisingly unrelated; unemployment and home foreclosure. Those two factors are often most associated with protest voting, especially in a tough economic climate, suggesting that the political establishments’ dismissal of them is based on superficial pretence. Therefore there must be a different reason as to why people are voting for Podemos. Their key voter group is the young, educated middle class, marginally more urban than rural but not so much as to make it a distinguishing feature. [23] It could thus be submitted that their appeal lies not in themselves existing, for example, as a negative reaction to immigration or economic policy, but rather for providing a positive vision for an alternative political future. Furthermore having a clear socialist identity only lends validity to their ability to deliver this.

A Future for Socialist Identity?

Karl Marx supposedly stated, ‘democracy is the road to socialism’. In modern Western Europe every country is a democracy. We are faced with marked inequalities between rich and poor in countries considered the birthplace of contemporary socialism against a backdrop of recession. This article has argued that there is room for socialism in our politics, but first it needs an identity to define itself against opposing theory. The rise of Podemos heralds the position more minor political groups can play in instigating debate and providing hope for change. There may be an absence of set socialist identity in many other countries, typified by Britain and France, but this is not indicative of a lack of new ideology. Identity is set, whereas much political theory is disputable. Podemos has provided an illustration of what can be achieved with set socialist identity. Although not covered in this article, Syriza of Greece provides a similar example. Western Europe is the origin of socialism; it is unimaginable that it will be bereft of socialist identity for long.

 

References:

1. E Hobsbawm, ‘Identity Politics and the Left’ (1989) NLR 40

2. (n1) 45

3. (n) 45

4. Bloomberg, ‘European Debt Crisis’ <http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/european-debt-crisis/ > Accessed December 14 2014

5. Eurostat, ‘unemployment rate, annual data’ <http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&plugin=1&pcode=tipsun20&language=en > Accessed December 14 2014

6. H Wilson, ‘RBS has lost all the 40bn pumped in by the taxpayer’ <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/10664372/RBS-has-lost-all-the-46bn-pumped-in-by-the-taxpayer.html > Accessed December 14 2014

7. R Winnett, Northern Rock in £3bn bailout from tax payer’ <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/2794277/Northern-Rock-in-3bn-bail-out-from-taxpayer.html > Accessed December 14 2014

8. BBC, ‘Eurozone crisis explained’ <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18338616 > Accessed December 14 2014

9. B Waterfield, ‘Eurozone paves way for third Greek bailout’ <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/10614315/Eurozone-paves-way-for-third-Greek-bail-out.html > Accessed December 14 2014

10. P Innman, ‘Britain’s richest 1% own as much as poorest 1% of population’ <http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/15/britains-richest-1-percent-own-same-as-bottom-55-population > Accessed December 14 2014

11. J Smialek ‘The 1% may be richer than you think’ <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-06/the-1-may-be-richer-than-you-think-research-shows.html > Accessed December 14 2014

12. H Samuel ‘Francois Hollande outlines manifesto for French Presidency Challenge’ <Samuel, Henry (26 January 2012). “François Hollande outlines manifesto for French presidency challenge – Telegraph”. The Daily Telegraph (London) > Accessed 15 December 2014

13. H Carnegy, ‘Francois Hollande approval rating falls despite reshuffle’ <http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9338f082-c2e1-11e3-b6b5-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3M4pyh9Zd > Accessed December 15 2014

14. S D Lorenzo’ France approve major labour reform package’ <http://news.yahoo.com/france-approves-major-labor-reform-package-160144959.html > Accessed December 15 2014

15. V Trierweller ‘Thank you for this moment: A Story of Love, Power and Betrayal’ Biteback Publishing 2014

16. A Tidey, ‘France veers to the right as the National Front gains support’ <http://www.cnbc.com/id/101152167 > Accessed December 16 2014

17. I Kolovos and P Harris, ‘Voter Apathy in British Elections: Causes and Remedies’ <http://otago.ourarchive.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10523/1456/voter_turnout.pdf > Accessed December 18 2014

18. T Garcia, ‘Why young Britons like me are the EU’s most apathetic voters’ <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/24/young-britons-apathetic-voters > Accessed December 18 2014

19. A Ellersiek, M Pianta, and P Utting, ‘Introduction: Understanding the Activism–Policy Nexus Global Justice Activism and Policy Reform in Europe. Understanding When Change Happens’ (1st edn, London 2012)

20. N Watt, ’Emily Thornberry ‘damaged labours election prospects with Rochester tweet’ <http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/nov/23/emily-thornberry-damaged-labour-election-prospects-rochester-tweet > Accessed December 18 2014

21. RT, ‘Spain exits multibillion EU bailout scheme’ <http://rt.com/business/spain-exits-eu-bailout-045/ > Accessed December 18 2014

22. Wikimedia <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ElectionMonthlyAverageGraphSpain2015.png > Accessed December 18 2014

23. F Betancor, ‘Just who are Podemos?’ <https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/fernando-betancor/just-who-are-podemos > Accessed December 18 2014

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