Is Britain drifting away from Europe, its conservative stability contrasting with the political turmoil on the Continent? One could draw this conclusion from the four elections in less than three weeks that have thrown a new light on the political map of Europe. In France, Italy and Germany it was a case of protest against the establishment, with votes switched to outsiders, some of them sinister. In Paris the result led to a change of government and the rapid departure of France’s first woman Prime Minister. In Rome the tremor was even stronger, threatening the rule of the Christian Democrats, a reign uninterrupted since the end of World War II. In Britain, after twelve years of pure Thatcherism and the longest period of depression since the 1930s, the Tories received their fourth mandate. Neil Kinnock, with his “designer socialism” tailored to conceal working-class connections and facilitate admission to the capitalist club, has been denied entrance to 10 Downing Street. Come to think of it, there is a link between continental turmoil and British stability; it is the absence, in both cases, of a radical alternative on the left.
To be sure, the four elections were not the same (parliamentary in Italy and Britain, regional in France and Germany); neither were the electoral systems. It is strange now to hear Italians clamoring for a winner-take-all system, while the British Liberal Democrats (who with 18 percent of the vote got 3 percent of the seats), as well as some Labor leaders, plead for proportional representation.
On the Continent, resentment against the establishment hit opposition and incumbents alike. Italy’s Christian Democrats dropped four percentage points, and the ruling coalition they head is clinging to a parliamentary majority by its fingernails. The ex-Communists of the Democratic Party of the Left, who by changing their name penetrated still further into consensus politics, were the other big losers. (Nominally, they dropped ten percentage points, but more than half of that went to their splinter, Rifondazione Comunista.) In France the ruling Socialists fared disastrously, the respectable conservatives in opposition, badly. In Germany, the Christian Democrats lost one region; the Social Democrats suffered a setback in another (see “Anger and Angst,” page 581). And everywhere the winners were outsiders–green, brown or of indefinite complexion.
This time the ecologists made their biggest advance in France. Fundamentally, the logic of their economic program clashes with that of the capitalist system, yet in practical politics they refuse to choose between left and right. Whatever their future, their success has revealed a fatal weakness of the European left: its failure to tackle the question of the nature and purpose of growth. This absence of an alternative project is also a factor in the advance of the xenophobic right, which is gaining ground among the young and the poor.
The reasons for popular discontent are many: deepening crisis, lasting unemployment, urban decay, the burden of reunification in Germany and the vague fear everywhere of European integration. Putting the blame on the foreigner is a classic diversion, and the “alien” can take many forms. To the big winners in northern Italy–the Lombard League, a middle-class protest movement that won less than 9 percent of the national vote but beat all the other parties in Milan–“bloody aliens” begin in Rome.
Since the causes for discontent are even deeper in Britain, why wasn’t the Labor Party able to defeat the Tories? To say that its platform, bowdlerized over the years, was too much like its rivals’ is both true and not quite accurate. Toward the end of the electoral campaign the views of the two sides on education, health, the welfare state and taxation for the rich plainly differed. But you don’t win fighting on your enemy’s terrain. The Labor Party was paying a price for its past concessions and for the resulting change in the mental climate. If private is beautiful, capitalism the only horizon and profit the only motive–in short, if the choice is between two accountants–no wonder that at the last moment some wavering voters opted for the Tory.
At stake here is more than tactics. The past fifteen years climaxed with the collapse of the Soviet system but also witnessed an extraordinary reversal of values in the West. True, the left in Britain and Germany, unlike in France and Italy, never talked of “changing life” by altering society. But it did think in terms of big changes within that society. Before the economic crisis of the mid-1970s the consensus was Keynesian and somewhat social democratic, and the right had to adapt. Now it is Friedmanite and the left has been performing somersaults.
What it should do is start from scratch, looking at the world as it is now, with its changed structures of production and labor. The left must weave together its conceptions of the purpose of growth, the patterns of consumption, the organization of labor. It must include in its project the demands of, say, women, or the ecological movement, not as additions but as integral. It must remember that democracy is not limited to voting every few years, and freedom is not just the right to buy and sell.
Many people will dismiss such preoccupations as “utopian.” The word may be taken as an insult if it means taking one’s dreams for reality or marching, in sectarian fashion, miles ahead of the movement. If it means asking for the apparently impossible and thus outlining the vision of a radically different society, it should be welcomed as a compliment. Pragmatists say, “I would rather be an opportunist and float than go to the bottom with my principles around my neck.” The message of the European elections for the left says exactly the opposite: It’s your broken principles that sink you.