The Euroleft, or, Who's Afraid of Tina? | The Nation


The Euroleft, or, Who's Afraid of Tina?

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Thatcherism With a Human Face

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

If you want to know the philosophy inspiring Tony Blair, read the opuscule of his purported guru, Anthony Giddens, The Third Way--or, because seldom have so many platitudes been packed into so little space, I shall spare you the effort by summing up its essence. The gist of his argument is based on the assumption that we are living in a world in which there are no alternatives to capitalism, that socialism is dead and that even the reformist objectives of social democracy are obsolete. There is still a difference between left and right, concedes Giddens, but fortunately it has been so reduced that "it permits exchange across political fences." With such a diagnosis it is easy to imagine the remedies. The state has an essential role to play in providing "the infrastructure needed to develop an entrepreneurial culture." The welfare state must be "reconstructed," with social benefits kept not too high so as to avoid "moral hazard" (read: the lazy blighters won't work). The author is, naturally, against "an obsession with inequality" and against "limits to the working week fixed by government."

How does Tony the performer get away with playing such a script? Charisma, spin doctors and efficient publicity? No, there is a deeper reason: In Britain Europe's labor movement suffered its most serious defeat back in 1984, when Thatcher took on the miners. Because other trade-union leaders did not rally behind the strikers, she defeated them after an epic one-year struggle that altered the balance of forces in the country. It takes time to recover from such a major setback. Blair now has more latitude to ignore popular discontent because he did nothing, on coming to power, to restore the balance in favor of working people. Naturally, such situations are not eternal. There are already some signs of discontent within the Labor Party. At the last party conference, held in Blackpool at the end of September, in the elections to the National Executive Committee from the constituency branches--the only direct vote reflecting the mood of the militants, of the rank and file--the left, critical of the current line, won four of the six available seats.

The leadership, however, need not worry. With its control of the party machinery and with the rules tightened still further in undemocratic fashion, the critics will be gagged. What is more important, most of the places in both parliamentary and local elections will be duly reserved for the faithful. Blair is safe, especially as long as he rides high in the ratings, though these could slump next year if the economy falters. In any case, for the time being, the leader of the Labor Party is the only one in Europe who can drive his party and his country in the American direction. Britain, to borrow the language of Giddens, "could be a sparking point for creative interaction between the US and continental Europe." If Tony's social democratic colleagues try to change their economic course, you can count on him to apply the brakes. With speeches full of references to dynamism and enterprise, he will be there defending the interests of the employers.

'La Gauche de la Gauche'

Lionel Jospin is at the other end of the social democratic spectrum. Not that he looks beyond the capitalist horizon. Far from it. He was an influential member of François Mitterrand's team, which converted the French left to consensus politics and obedience to the rules of the international market. Indeed, during his nineteen months as prime minister he has privatized more than his conservative predecessor. But Jospin is also the byproduct of the strikes and demonstrations that shook France in the winter of 1995. He is sensitive to pressure from below. To preserve his leftish reputation, he has decreed that a thirty-five-hour workweek will be legally binding in two years, and he's urged his European partners to put the struggle against unemployment at the top of their agenda. Unlike Blair, he does dream of a reformist management of the existing society, though he does not mobilize the mass movement that would be necessary for this purpose.

What did that French winter of discontent change? Nothing fundamental in the structure of the country, but something subtle in its mood. It precipitated President Chirac's decision to hold a snap parliamentary election, which brought the victorious Jospin to the prime minister's office. It probably drove Jospin to form a coalition with the Communists and the Greens as junior partners in his government. The existence of this "plural left," as it is called, created a void on its left. In the local elections held last March, the Trotskyists captured nearly 5 percent of the vote. This was not a sudden French conversion to the ideas of the prophet of permanent revolution but a warning by the radical electorate accusing the rulers of excessive moderation, a warning that was particularly worrying for the Communists but perturbing for all members of the coalition. The government must take into account the fact that it can lose votes on its left.

The change in the general atmosphere is at once difficult to define and undeniable. The idea of Tina is no longer supreme. Articles and essays are being published questioning the reign of the market, domestic and foreign, as well as the domination of our life by money. The monthly Le Monde diplomatique, a nonconformist journal, has gained in influence. A series of little books, not necessarily red in color but critical in substance, edited by the well-known sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and called "Reasons to Act" is selling like hotcakes. (Serge Halimi's indictment of the media servants of the system holds the record so far, with 200,000 copies). The virulence of attacks against Bourdieu since he has become more directly involved in politics is symptomatic. He is accused of using his prestige and his position at the top of the French academic establishment--he is a professor in the holy of holies, the Collège de France--to undermine the established order. The anger of his many accusers is a sign that the priests of the ruling religion have lost their supreme self-confidence.

But they are not on the run. Indeed, the protesters have failed so far in their greatest ambition. At the height of the strike in 1995 labor activists and intellectuals decided to work together in search of alternative solutions. And they did for quite a time, both in Paris and the provinces. The contacts thus established have certainly proved useful, but these General Estates of the Social Movement did not produce concrete counterproposals, let alone the outlines of an alternative project. They did not crown their efforts, as was originally projected, with a vast national conference. But the search for different solutions, for another future, has not been abandoned. Actually, a new body, the Copernic Foundation, has just been set up by unionists and intellectuals to encourage such work.

It is clear, however, that it will take quite a lot of time, and a great deal of pushing by a genuine movement from below, before the vision of an alternative society emerges. Yet one has the impression that France is already ripe for the rebirth of a new New Left. It could be centered around radical labor activists and the militants in what the French call le mouvement des sans (movement of the "withouts"--people without shelter, workers without jobs, immigrants without documents). If they can combine their activity with a broader project, they would exercise a great attraction not only for many Communists but also for the left ranks of the Greens and the Socialists, thus changing substantially the political balance in the country.

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