The Left post-2008: A new dawn, or a spectacular missed opportunity?

10 years on from the generation-defining economic crash, Sean Bell asks what the left has learned from capitalism’s disaster, and whether it might yet transform the system that produced it

The anniversary of the 2008 financial collapse serves to highlight how little has altered among the orthodoxies and power structures which lay behind the greatest crisis of capitalism this century has yet produced. Despite threats and promises, banks that were saved in their darkest hour remain open for business. The banking industry itself has been largely untroubled by significant reform. International capital is not in retreat, nor has corporate influence been rolled back. By means of concentrated political life support, the shibboleths of neoliberalism have been sustained.

While much attention has been paid to reaction from the right to the post-2008 landscape - from Brexit to Trump, protectionist nativism to resurgent fascism – those on the left who still believed capitalism has to be tamed at minimum (and at maximum overthrown) entered a new era where the vulnerabilities of the system were suddenly laid bare, and thus the opportunity to build an alternative to neoliberalism in its crisis phase clearly presented itself.

Movements like Occupy articulated the anger of those who suffered the most from the inbuilt illogic of the dominant economic model. Parties such as the SNP and Sinn Fein adapted themselves to oppose the ensuing austerity imposed after the crisis. Insurgencies like those of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn revitalised the possibility of transforming political parties previously tied to the establishment, while new organisations like Podemos and Syriza arose to supplant the politics of yesterday.

The legacy of 2008 means that the left cannot be ignored – but its experiences in the decade since show that it is not assured victory, either. Its path has not been untroubled, its electoral victories rare, its achievements still incomplete. So was the financial crisis the beginning of a reborn international leftism, or does it denote a spectacular missed opportunity?

Professor Luke March, Head of Politics and International Relations at Edinburgh University and the author of ‘Europe’s Radical Left: From Marginality to the Mainstream?’, acknowledges that the 2008 crisis was “a transformative event” for the radical left: “It obviously had a direct impact in certain cases – Spain, Greece, and Portugal for example, where you have an upsurge in the radical left. But it’s not a clear picture – in many countries where there was a financial crisis, there wasn’t a [pre-existing] radical left.

“It also created opportunity for the radical right as well – sometimes, to a greater degree than the radical left. The underlying issues are a greater polarisation and a collapse of the centre. It’s certainly weakened neoliberalism intellectually, and gave a shot in the arm to the left. But obviously, neoliberalism still exists in its financial institutions – it’s not dead, it’s undead.”

The Scottish political journalist Jamie Maxwell, who served as press officer for the socialist electoral alliance RISE in the run-up to the 2016 Scottish parliamentary election, takes a similar view: “It was pivotal to the extent that much of the left’s critique of neoliberalism was vindicated,” he says.

READ MORE: 10 years since the crash: Where did banking go wrong, and how do we fix it?

“In the years since, many of the established centre-left forces that remained loyal to that model - from New Labour in Britain to the Socialists in France and the Clintonite Democrats in the States - have either collapsed entirely or are struggling to maintain control of their respective parties. But that hasn’t translated yet into sustained electoral success for the left and until it does I don’t think you could describe it as transformative.”

As one might expect from someone versed in political history, March emphasises the need to place the radical left’s current position in a historical context that extends beyond the 2008 crisis and its aftermath: “On an electoral, social level, the scope has always been there for a [radical left] form of politics – but that was always the case even back in the 20th century. The key thing is, [the financial crisis] blew the establishment apart, so it gave much more of an opening for the radical left to grow. Intellectually, it resurrected Keynsian ideas, to some degree Marxism, and brought them much more into what used to be the mainstream of social democracy – the UK Labour party underpins that to some degree. But in some countries, the left has collapsed, or failed to grow. It’s still very much a nationally divided phenomenon.

“I think it’s very rare that it doesn’t have at least a partially historical explanation,” March continues. “Corbyn is explicable, because the radical left has always partially operated within the Labour party. If you understand a radical left party in other countries are a coalition of revolutionaries and social democrats, then some figures who in different countries might have been in a radical left party have now been in the Labour party in the UK. It partially happened with the SNP and the Greens as well.”

READ MORE: ‘The socialists are back, and they are pissed’: American socialism in the age of Trump

For Maxwell, his experience with RISE demonstrated that the new radical left parties and movements which emerged from the wreckage of 2008 should not be analysed with a broad-brush approach, joining March in highlighting the importance of national circumstances: “There were a number of specific problems with RISE. Organisationally it wasn’t very coherent. It hardly had any resources at its disposal. It was fighting an election campaign that launched within weeks of its founding.

“But more broadly, the  experience of RISE demonstrates that there is no universal formula for leftwing electoral success - even when the objective political and economic conditions seem favourable. In Scotland, the SNP and the Greens already offered left-leaning pro-independence voters credible options at the ballot box. And the rest of the left vote was scattered between Labour and - in Glasgow - Tommy Sheridan. So the space for a new project like RISE was limited from day one.

“The ‘populist’, post-crash left is struggling in other countries, too,” Maxwell notes. “In Spain, Podemos hasn’t managed to replace the PSOE as the dominant party of social democracy. In Canada, the NDP is lagging on 16 or 17 per cent in the polls, barely a year out from the next general election. The political effects of 2008 - like the economic effects - have been dramatically uneven.” 

“The political effects of 2008 - like the economic effects - have been dramatically uneven.” Political journalist Jamie Maxwell

Prior to any new electoral formations of the radical left, the left arguably found its first and most prominent articulations post-2008 in movement-building, whether in Occupy, the student movements of the UK and Canada, or anti-austerity protests across Europe. But here too, the relationship between protest and party is uneven and “complicated”, as March explains.

“Social movements have been radicalised – a lot of global justice movements in Northern Europe [prior to 2008] might have been organised through social democratic or green parties, but then they gradually stopped seeing them as adequate partners.

“The places where these parties have done best, they’ve coincided with the movements or they’ve come as the outgrowth of them. Obviously, you have Occupy – Occupy laid the groundwork - but initially, a lot of these movements were fairly anti-party. It they’re going to matter, you need a situation where the mainstream of the political system is already under threat and that allows new parties to come up and claim to be the representatives of these social movements. Obviously, in both Greece and Spain, there were existing political parties that didn’t benefit from these growing movements. In Spain, there was the United Left, which engaged with movements a bit, but was a fairly traditional trade union organisation, while in Greece, the Communist Party built its own social movements – so they weren’t really able to react [to new movement-building].”

READ MORE: It’s private debt, stupid: Has Growth Commission learned from the 2008 crash?

Yet while many of the movements which have informed and comprised much of the radical left resurgence since 2008 have been framed, either by themselves or their critics, as anti-capitalist, Maxwell emphasises that this is not always the case with the new leftist electoral developments that have been built from them: “There’s a distinction between being anti-capitalist - a designation that very few leftwing movements in the mainstream of European and North American politics would claim - and being against neoliberalism.

“To the extent that they support more state intervention and investment, greater regulation of the labour market, and the break-up of the big banks, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders favour a structural overhaul of the neoliberal model. But their goal is to make capitalism more sustainable for ordinary people, not to eliminate it altogether. Likewise, some of the most unapologetically neoliberal politicians are (or were) openly sceptical of austerity as a response to the crisis.

“Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders favour a structural overhaul of the neoliberal model. But their goal is to make capitalism more sustainable for ordinary people, not to eliminate it altogether.” Political journalist Jamie Maxwell

“Obama implemented a stimulus package in 2009 on a scale comparable to that of the New Deal. In Canada, Stephen Harper - one of the most aggressively rightwing leaders the country has ever had - spent more then $30bn trying to offset the effects of the crash on the Canadian economy. In Britain - partly as a result of the Tories’ reframing of the crisis in the run-up to the 2010 general election - the term ‘anti-austerity’ exists as a byword for ‘1970s-style socialism.’ In other countries, spending more in the middle of a recession is basic common sense. So all these concepts are meshed together in an unhelpful way - and arguably in a way that allows opportunistic centrist politicians to exploit the ambiguity.”

Many parties previously associated with the conventional centre-left, such as the SNP and Sinn Fein, adopted anti-austerity as a central plank of their political platforms in reaction to the punishing agenda rolled out under David Cameron’s coalition government and his successor, Theresa May. 

“It’s clear looking through history that the radical left is more durable when it has a national framework.” Professor Luke March

Commenting on the potential of left nationalist movements and parties post-2008, March says: “They have a bit more of a dynamic potential, because that mixing together of left-wing rhetoric without the programmatic hesitation of the traditional radical left gives them more leeway. It’s a tricky one, because it’s clear looking through history that the radical left is more durable when it has a national framework. The strongest Communist parties were not just supported by Moscow, but had strong roots in domestic politics.”

Looking at Scotland, Maxwell says its not clear that the mainstream of left politics has yet absorbed lessons from 2008.

“The SNP has learned depressingly little. Even in 2014 the party leadership argued in favour of maintaining the UK’s system of financial regulation after independence and wanted to compete with the rest of the UK on corporate tax rates.

READ MORE: Tony Perridge: Austerity economics is lunacy - independence with a sovereign currency can offer an escape route

“The irony is that the party’s success drew on the deep sense of public discontent with the British political status quo that intensified after the crash. In some respects, the 2014 referendum was the first major populist rupture in British politics, followed by Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015, the Brexit vote, and last year’s general election. 2014 demonstrated that support for establishment politics was shaky even among Scotland’s remarkably staid and conservative electorate.

“Scottish Labour has also learned nothing. Richard Leonard doesn’t have much to offer beyond a tedious rehashing of Better Together attack lines. Nor does he seem to understand why so many young, poor, and left-wing Scots - Scots who might otherwise vote for the Labour Party - are so consistently enthusiastic about independence. He doesn’t even seem curious about it, in fact.”  

The consequences of the explosive protests of 1968, the anniversary of which were also noted this year, stretched across years and decades, their influence evident in the politics of nations like France, Germany and Italy long after the movements that produced them receded. Contemplating whether a radical left populated by the millennial and post-millennial cohort that has suffered most from the Great Recession might face a similar long game, March admits: “A lot of those things haven’t played out yet. In the case of 1968, it took a lot longer to play out.

“We are early in this cycle, and I’m still not sure if the radical left we’ve seen emerge is temporary or not.”

Picture courtesy of Neil Girling

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