“The facts speak only when the historian calls on them,” wrote E.H. Carr in his landmark work What Is History? “It is he who decides which facts to give the floor and in what order or context.” And so it is that, by giving a particular selection of “facts” the floor, distorting others and ignoring the rest that lie in clear view, an orthodoxy has emerged on this side of the Atlantic that the European left is in free fall.
“A specter is haunting Europe,” reports the New York Times. “The specter of Socialism’s slow collapse…. Where the left holds power, as in Spain and Britain, it is under attack. Where it is out, as in France, Italy and now Germany, it is divided and listless.”
These stories (generally presented as news rather than opinion) are framed with considerable schadenfreude. At the very moment when capitalism is nose-diving, goes the punch line, so are those who are dedicated to replacing it.
“Among the victims of the Great Recession,” observes the Washington Post, are “Europe’s big-government, welfare-loving socialist parties, which so far have been unable to exploit voter anxiety over the perils of runaway capitalism.”
“Pity Europe’s Socialists,” opines the Boston Globe. “Just when you might think capitalism’s global crisis would breathe new life into the left, it’s looking increasingly divided and tired.” Tee-hee. The world as we know it is imploding, and nobody has any faith in an alternative.
Now, it’s not that the facts that have been selected are untrue. A center-right coalition has just won in Germany, last year Silvio Berlusconi retained power in Italy and the year before that the French right won the presidency. Meanwhile, Labor faces almost certain defeat in Britain next spring. The four most populous countries in Europe with the four biggest economies are, or are about to be, controlled by the right. Moreover, at the recent European elections the social democratic grouping was drubbed. There is definitely a trend here. And it is by no means an encouraging one.
But it’s only when you include another set of facts that you can see two reasons this year’s elections reveal a trend that is less than calamitous for the left and two more reasons it is worrying for everybody. First, in four of the five other national elections in Europe this year (not counting the votes in small principalities and Albania), the right was defeated. In Portugal and Norway center-left governments were voted back in; in Iceland and Greece the left gained power. Only in Bulgaria did the right sweep the board.
Second, it depends what you mean by left. If you are talking about the British Labor Party, which has presided over growing inequalities, an increase in poverty and the Iraq War, or Germany’s Social Democrats, who worked as coalition partners with the right to undermine workers’ rights and slash welfare entitlements, then the left did do badly. But those aren’t left policies. “Social Democrats in Europe have warned for years of the dangers of untamed markets and unchecked globalization,” wrote the Washington Post. The truth is they have been embracing those policies heartily and are now being punished for it.
For at least the past decade the European social democrats have been distancing themselves from socialism. Everybody recognized that when they were winning; there is no good reason to stop doing so now.
But if you are talking about the hard left and the Greens–groups still advocating a radical redistribution of wealth and power–the results were impressive. In Germany the Greens and Die Linke, a blend of the remnants of the former East German Communist Party and left Social Democrats, each increased their share of the vote by more than 30 percent. Portugal’s Left Bloc doubled its seats; in Iceland the Left-Green Movement increased its share of the vote by 52 percent, while in Greece the hard left and the Ecologist Greens upped their combined share slightly. (The Norwegian hard left fared poorly.)
So the specter haunting Europe isn’t of socialism’s “slow collapse.” People haven’t stopped looking for left alternatives to capitalism. In fact, those alternatives are more popular now than they have been for a long time. People have just stopped looking to the center-left to provide them. And while there are more supporters of the hard left or Greens than there were, usually a combined total of about one in five, in most instances there are simply not enough of them. But then that’s always been the case.
Yet the two principal victors in this period of European politics have been neither the left nor the right but disillusionment and fragmentation.
In every country, with the exception of Iceland, there was a drop in voter turnout ranging from 2 percent in Norway to a whopping 9 percent in Germany. And in every country, with the exception of Norway, the share of the votes netted by the two main parties plunged by between 3 percent in Greece and 19 percent in Germany.
In other words, in a year of economic meltdown, growing unemployment and declining living standards, significantly fewer people are seeking electoral solutions. And those who are are increasingly abandoning the mainstream parties, prompting an even more striking rise on the hard right than there has been on the hard left. The margins rise, the mainstream falls, the whole is becoming less than the sum of its fragmented parts.
Disaffection, desperation, economic crisis, racial animus, rising nationalism–there is indeed a specter haunting Europe. It is all too familiar. Those who crow about it being an illustration of the demise of the left simply don’t understand it. And that’s a fact.