Twenty-five years ago, my girlfriend and I sat on a train in the North of France. We were heading towards Wissant, a small coastal town in the Pas de Calais. At one point, five men, factory workers to all appearances, joined us. They all seemed to be late 50s or early 60s. The man sitting opposite to me calmly rolled a cigarette, ‘How things are here you ask? My friend, it is utter disaster,’ he said. I felt anger boiling up in me when he stoically declared that these days he and all his mates voted for the Front National. ‘Le Pen is the last man standing, the only one who takes us serious.’ ‘How can you say that?’ I protested, ‘What is Le Pen going to do for you?’ ‘I do not know,’ the man answered absolutely unnerved, ‘probably nothing. But all the others, including the communists and the socialists (i.e. the social democrats), have betrayed us. They stole our work and the socialists did nothing. Now they can all go to hell.’
‘It is not that bad,’ a friend told me Thursday morning. ‘Geert Wilders did not win.’ What is not bad about it? The far right wing conservative, pro business, anti-union, anti social welfare state, austerity obsessed neoliberals win the election. Wilders’ PVV becomes the second biggest party in the country, gaining 5 seats compared to 2012. The social democrats, on the other hand, get less than 6 % and lose 29 seats!
Here is the result of the Dutch parliamentary election (there are 150 seats in the Dutch parliament, so a government needs 76 seats to have a majority):
The right wing, ultra-conservative VVD remains the biggest party in the country. They get 33 seats in the new parliament, a loss of 8 seats.
The extreme right wing PVV of Geert Wilders gets 13.1% of the votes. The party has now 20 seats in the parliament, they win 5 seats.
The right wing conservative CDA (Christian Democratic Appel) is third. They get 12.5% of the votes and 19 seats in parliament, they win 6 seats.
The liberal D66 gets 12.0% of the votes, which is also good for 19 seats, they win 7 seats.
De socialist party SP gets 9.2% of the votes, getting 14 seats, which amounts to a loss of 1 seat.
GroenLinks, the ‘Green Left’ party gets 8.9% of the votes, they now also have 14 seats, they win 10 seats.
The social democratic PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid) get 5.7% of the votes and 9 seats in parliament, which amounts to a loss of 29 seats.
Explaining the result
How can this result be explained? The Dutch result is not unique, although it is, to date, perhaps the most dramatic. In 2016, Labour got demolished in Ireland. This happened for exactly the same reason that Lodewijk Asscher drove his party into the abyss of electoral nothingness: social democratic voters did not accept and did not forgive Labour for entering into a coalition government with the conservative Fine Gael. This government implemented merciless austerity, cut social benefits, introduced labour activation, raised the costs of education and health care, refused to confront the housing crisis by building social housing and, basically – a point even conservative analysts agree with – left the biggest victims of the obscene adventures of the Irish troika (the government, the bankers and the developers) behind and even kicked them in the teeth (for those interested in what happened in Ireland, I heartedly recommend Conor McCabe’s Sins of the Father. He also provides an excellent historical overview).
Irish Labour transformed itself into a pro austerity party with almost religious zeal. No cost-benefit analysis has ever been made of the activation programs that they implemented. It is highly doubtful that, in economic terms, they ever made sense. But they made ideological sense. They were about isolating, sanctioning, humiliation and disciplining the poor, the marginalised and the unemployed. The result? In May 2016, Labour got its worst result in its 104 years long history, ending up with 4.4% of all deputies in the Irish chambers (see here).
In the Netherlands, the policies of the VVD-PvdA coalition were also unpopular. Rutte, however, succeeded in portraying himself as a competent neo-liberal austerian. Asscher, on the contrary, found it increasingly difficult to justify support for this ultra right wing government. The recovery of the Dutch economy played to Rutte’s advantage. According to Dorussen, Dutch voters who experienced the benefits of economic recovery voted for political stability, either for the VVD or for the CDA. The loss of the VVD is mainly a swing towards the conservative Christians (see here) – a vote from the right to the right. The same is not true for the PvdA. The economy improved, but for who? The recovery has been much less clear for the PvdA electorate. Austerity has led to a decline in public sector employment and less money is available for social welfare (see here). Inequality skyrocketed in the Netherlands. Many have seen no improvement at all.
Did the ‘working class’ become reactionary?
Asbjorn Wahl, director of the pro social welfare state campaign in Norway, asks in Social Europe whether the working class has become reactionary (see here). Wahl assumes that it is mainly the old working class, which once voted for the left, that is now voting for the right. This may not be totally correct. For example, Trump did well among the highest income earners in several states and during the preliminaries in New England the differences in educational attainment between supporters for Clinton, Sanders and Trump were minimal.
While the working class has become reactionary or not remains an open question, there is no doubt that social democracy has become neo-liberal. As a result, several societal strata ended up without political representation (who defends the rights of the unemployed?; who speaks for the poor in parliament?; who represents the homeless?; who defends the rights of those abused by the institutions?). One of the results of social democracy taking the ‘third way’ (see here for a devastating critique), was the de facto exclusion from the public sphere of all those that have been on the losing end of globalization, outsourcing, ‘free’ trade, the capital bias in technology or lack of investment, neo-liberalism, the attack on the unions and the welfare state. The workers we met on the train in France did not rant about restoring the honour of the great fatherland or about ‘race’ or religion. It was about their work. “We are sorry,” the system has said to them for decades, “but your skills have become useless, you have become superfluous, you have become a burden on our economy and now that you are voting for extremist parties you are also a danger to our democratic institutions.” They are, in the words of Hollande, the “sans dents,” those who are too poor to have dental care and, hence, have no teeth. “There is nothing to worry about,” Hollande opined. “The Front National can have the sans dents, we do not need them” – exactly as the Democrats did not need the blue collar workers in Pennsylvania, at least, they did not think so (see here).
The great back clash
The great change happened in 2016. As long as the losers were stupid enough to vote for parties that did nothing for them there was obviously no danger to the system. From the view point of the elites, everything was in order. In the meantime, Donald Trump is president of the USA. Marine Le Pen may win the presidential election in France. Theresa May, who is more to the right than Cameron, governs the UK. No one elected her. In Hungary, Orban proposes to detain all asylum seekers in container camps (see here), etc. The liberals produce an endless supply of words dealing with the question of how to tame this dangerous ‘populism.’ According to them, it is clear that our democratic institutions need to be protected from the onslaught of ‘radicalism’ and ‘populism,’ both from the right and from the left (Sanders and Corbyn).
This is also Dani Rodrik’s position. Rodrik writes that two types of political cleavage have been exacerbated: an identity cleavage, revolving around nationhood, ethnicity, or religion, and an income cleavage, revolving around social class. Populists derive their appeal from one or the other of these cleavages. Right-wing populists such as Trump engage in identity politics. Left-wing populists such as Bernie Sanders emphasize the gulf between the rich and the poor. To Rodrik it does not make much of a difference. Left or right, it is just all radicalism:
“Unlike mainstream political elites, populists can easily point to the culprits responsible for the masses’ ills. (…) The appeal of populists is that they give voice to the anger of the excluded. (…) They offer a grand narrative as well as concrete, if misleading and often dangerous, solutions” (see here).
Yes, because the ‘populism’ of Sanders is just as bad as that of Trump, which is just as good as that of Le Pen, etc. It may look like that in Harvard anyway.
It is not Sanders or Corbyn that constitute a danger to democracy, on the contrary. If you do not want Le Pen or Wilders, then do not create them. The extreme right only gained political prominence after liberal democracy proved incapable of providing political representation to the strata that the economy has been increasingly condemning to precariousness. Research has shown that, to put it simply, electoral results are of little consequence. According to Gilens and Page, the US political system – in other words Rodrik’s system of “mainstream political elites” – is oligarchic: wealthy elites and corporations rule (see here). Examining data from more than 1.800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page find that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which major party holds the White House and/or Congress. As Gilens explained “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” “Under Obama, people learned,” Greider wrote, “that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. (…) (T)o deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid” (see here).
To repeat myself, as long as there was no reaction to these “mainstream political elites” there was no problem. I cannot disagree more with Rodrik’s argument. It is yet another of these typical diagnoses that puts responsibility where it does not belong. The problem lies with all those politicians and policy-makers who, in complete unison with their old enemies, the right, started to sing the song of globalization, free trade, the ever increasing commodification of everything, markets everywhere for everything, the deregulation of finance, the end of macroeconomic policy as we knew it, the end of social welfare as we knew it, nothing could stand in the way of business, marketing, money and more money.
Today, the liberals tell you that the revolt is the back clash of the stupid masses, the uneducated, the radicals and the populists – it’s not the system, it never is. The sport seems to be to come up with the most superlative terms imaginable when engaging in quasi-religious moralisation and condemnation of the electoral temerity of the “rednecks.” Speaking of stupidity and blindness, how could the liberals ever assume that those at the bottom of the societal ladder would remain silent forever? For some, wage growth has stagnated, sometimes for decades. In Europe, the level of unionisation has almost halved over the last 30 years. Those at the bottom of the pyramid can forget about their labour rights. The political parties that, at one time, stood up for them left them behind and became champions of welfare-to-work ideology. People have been treated with neglect or with moralising paternalism, suspicion and brutal sanctions of the so-called modernised welfare state. Inequality has exploded, the rich have never been richer, businesses sit on piles of cash, but refuse to invest. According to the liberals, however, the back clash is a mere sign of collective stupidity. Sure, some fall for the fake anti-elitist and anti-establishment rhetoric of the extreme right. What did they expect?
The invention of the ‘Moroccan’
The picture that the liberals paint – poor and stupid people voting for bad parties, while good parties incarnate democracy, inclusiveness and civility – is pure ideology. In Belgium, 30 or so years ago, the main parties agreed to the construction of a cordon sanitaire around the extreme right Vlaams Blok (later Vlaams Belang). Never – absolutely never – these democratic forces would work together with the extreme right. Today, several of the original Vlaams Blok revendications have become law and are now considered uncontroversial. In Flanders, the NVA, which is, in many ways, the real successor of the Vlaams Belang (although they deny it), is in power, almost everywhere (see here). Antwerp and many other cities are in the hands of the NVA (see here). The NVA dominates the Flemish government (see here). The party has a major influence on the Belgian government in which it is heavily represented (see here).
In Belgium, or, rather, in Flanders, the ‘brown plague’ was driven by growing unemployment, growing hardship, precariousness, the formation of deprived areas, etc., just as everywhere else. None of the democratic parties had a solution for these problems. Of course, the extreme right had no solutions either. It had, however, two trump cards: it remorselessly attacked the ‘Belgique a papa’ (the paternalist Belgian welfare state) and declared ideological war on the ‘Moroccan.’ Suddenly, it was the ‘Moroccan’ who was messing things up. It was the ‘Moroccan’ who stole jobs and tried to turn Belgium into a caliphate. This is what Geert Wilders had to say about the Moroccans in the Dutch parliament in 2007:
“Very many Dutch citizens, Madam Speaker, experience the presence of Islam around them. And I can report that they have had enough of burkas, headscarves, the ritual slaughter of animals, so‑called honour revenge, blaring minarets, female circumcision, hymen restoration operations, abuse of homosexuals, Turkish and Arabic on the buses and trains as well as on town hall leaflets, halal meat at grocery shops and department stores, Sharia exams, the Finance Minister’s Sharia mortgages, and the enormous overrepresentation of Muslims in the area of crime, including Moroccan street terrorists” (see here).
This has been the language of the extreme right all over Europe for decades.
The great drama, however, is that the invention of the Moroccan was not lost on anyone. It was political manna from heaven. All parties could now be forgiven for their inability or unwillingness to combat unemployment, poverty and all sorts of other economic, social and political dysfunctions. It sufficed that they joined the discourse of the Moroccan – politely, of course and with consideration, strongly denying that they were targeting anyone from foreign origin, but still … As Wahl writes, labour parties progressively cut the links with their old constituencies and:
“Rather than picking up the discontent generated in a more brutal labour market, politicizing it and channelling it into an organised interest-based struggle, middle class left parties offered little else than moralizing and contempt and in effect did little else than push large groups of workers into the arms of the far-right parties, which support all the discontent and do their best to channel people’s rage against the immigrants” (see here).
That is, unfortunately, true. It remains a scandal of extreme proportions as well as a gigantic political blunder.
Wrong views should be fought, not respected
In the UK, after decades of class war and neglect, the de-industrialised hinterlands in the North revolted. Old Labour bastions run the danger of falling into UKIP’s hands. What will be done about it? One could reasonably assume that there is hope, now that the Left fraction rules Labour. The Left has to tell the workers that they have been the victims of 40 years of brutal neo-liberalism and vicious right wing policies. This class war has been waging, regardless of whether the Tories or New Labour were in power (see here and here – both of these books are very good). But now there is hope. The Left could present a program that deals with investment in manufacturing, deprived areas, infrastructure, schools, the NHS, it can promise to re-build social welfare, fund community work, etc. It can do this every day of the week.
Forget it. Labour is supporting the Tories with the implementation of the Brexit – whatever that may mean. Labour has gone so far to consider agreeing to restrictions to (EU) migration to the North (but not to London and the South). This is sheer capitulation. It is not possible to agree to or propose such restrictions without accepting the notion that these immigrants are, in some way, to blame for at least some of the ills in the North. The problem is that Labour is afraid of losing out to UKIP. To go against the xenophobic and racist sentiment in the de-industrialised hinterlands would be political suicide. Who says so? The likes of McTernan (see here), who was Labour’s strategist in Scotland in the general election of 2015 when Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats in Scotland. That people still listen to what McTernan has to say is living proof that Labour lacks the courage to address the problem of the North in a fundamental way. Man enough to stand up to the neo-liberalism of the EU, Left Labour now supports the political adventures of the most neo-liberal UK government of all time. It refuses to see this glaring contradiction. In the meantime nothing is getting solved. No one speaks about conservative politics, austerity, the welfare state or anything else. No one speaks about anything in the UK. It is all about the Brexit. The losers lose again.
When Labour moved to the left in the UK, it won 200.000 new members in 8 or 9 months’ time – an incredibly feat that goes against a long trend all over Europe. In the US, Sanders came close to winning to the nomination of the Democratic Party. This proves that there is potential for left wing politics. Coalition governments with ring wing parties do not work, as the Irish and the Dutch examples prove. Social democracy has to present realistic programs, restore social welfare and rebuild the social democratic state. Imagine what could be done. The left could be the champion of intelligent policies, giving a message of hope and inclusion, making real changes for the good in the lives of people.
Today, social democratic leaders decide to lie low, let the storm pass and gamble that a growing economy will save them from complete electoral disaster and political irrelevance. It will not work. Social democracy cannot survive without a program of its own – a social democratic program that opposes neo-liberalism, etc. Aside from that there is the ever looming danger of the combination of economic crisis and a steady electoral gain of the extreme right. How many percentage points is the extreme right still going to win before you change strategy? How many elections are you still going to lose because you were in a coalition in which you do not belong? Continue to lie low and you will never get on your feet again.