Reclining Dionysos, from Parthenon east pediment,
ca. 5th century BCE
Published under a Creative Commons licence, CC BY 2.5

Post-crisis politics aren’t about right or left. They’re about the core versus the periphery

One of the problems of political science, and social science generally, is that it is hard to prove a hypothesis. A sceptic can always say that there were particular circumstances that affected the outcome. We only get to play our history once.

But the recent events in Brussels in which the ‘Institutions’ settled with Greece have, without any doubt, vindicated the work of the late political scientist Peter Mair. His book Ruling The Void, assembled after his sudden death by his lifelong friend and colleague Francis Mulhern, argued that we were watching a long secular decline in party political engagement, and secondly that our political institutions were being shaped so that they had the appearance of being democratic, but none of the structure. His critical case was the European Union; it looked as if had the right institutions in place, but it was not designed to permit opposition or the expression of representative democracy.

Removing opposition

Here’s one of the key passages from his book:

The behaviour and preferences of citizens constitute virtually no formal constraint on, or mandate for, the relevant policy makers. Decisions can be taken by political elites with more or less a free hand. … Despite the seeming availability of channels of access, the scope for meaningful input and hence for effective electoral accountability is exceptionally limited. It is in this sense that Europe seems to have been constructed as a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives. (pp 108-109)

Whatever failings Syriza has had in its “negotiations” with the EU, and whatever the particularities of the Greek history and situation, it has shown clearly that the EU as constituted is not willing to entertain any form of oppositional view that does not accept the broad principles of both austerity and neoliberalism/neomercantilism, even when this is both bad politics and bad economics.

A private club

For me this was crystallised when the former finance minister Yannis Varoufakis challenged the decision by the Eurogroup finance ministers to exclude him from discussions and was told that the Eurogroup did not have formal rules because it was, effectively, a private club. But this isn’t only a view held on the left. The EU has been going some to attract the hostility of both Bloomberg and the Daily Telegraph. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote in the Telegraph:

Personally, I am a Burkean conservative with free market views. Ideologically, Syriza is not my cup [of] tea. Yet we Burkeans do like democracy – and we don’t care for monetary juntas – even if it leads to the election of a radical-Left government.

The EU’s problem (and I may be being kind here) is that it was designed as a mutual economic bloc with social democratic protections—capitalism with European characteristics, perhaps—but has found no way to evolve the social democratic elements in the face of the long wave of neoliberalism. Within it, the German model has been to unravel many of the social protections just as quickly as it can, even though people are for some reason constantly surprised when you say this. The French model has been to protect some of the social democratic elements and see economic growth slow, although this can be over-stated.

Scenarios for a globalised world

More than a decade ago, and comfortably before the crisis, my sometime colleague Ian Christie wrote a piece in Open Democracy on scenarios for a globalised world. There were three:

[1] A “high stakes” model of development (United States-dominated, depending on liberalised markets, economic growth, aggressive development of science and technology, and diffusion of American products, services and commercial values).

[2] A “shared values” model (broadly social democratic – under pressure from the “high stakes” approach to global market development; a model of politics and economic development emphasising social capital, tolerance, multiculturalism, consensus and limits to social and economic inequalities).

[3] A “natural orders” model – covering Greens, fundamentalists, localists and communitarians of left and right, and also neo-fascists. “Natural orders” covers the protesters against the latest wave of the Enlightenment and Industrialism i.e. globalisation and European Union integration.

Standing up

Europe’s problem, seen through this lens, is that although there were ways to maintain the second scenario, countries have chosen not to. Scenario 2 was killed off by the failure of Europe’s social democrats: and this is now a road not taken. Globalisation increasingly looks like the American model of Scenario 1.

The result is that national politics increasingly looks like Scenario 3, with people who have lost out from Scenario 1, or prefer for reasons of values not to support the structures of that Scenario 1 world, voting for the parties that “will stand up for you.” (Ian Dunt made this sharp point about why people had voted for the SNP and UKIP in the British general election.) While this isn’t directly a piece about the British general election, the collapse of the Labour vote among the least advantaged social groups DE, especially between 2005 and 2010, tells its own story, and nothing that any of the leadership candidates have said so far shows any signs of changing this. The parties making significant gains in members and votes are all “Scenario 3” parties.

Labour share by social class 05-15Source: the next wave

The periphery versus the core

Actually, there’s a much wider issue here. Globalisation—the world of Ian Christie’s Scenario 1—extracts resources from the periphery and reallocates them to the core. There is economic logic here, since returns are better in the core. The periphery can be a geographical periphery (the Eurozone’s problem in a single line) and it can also be a social periphery, those pockets in the core passed by globalisation. And this issue—periphery versus core—is now the single most important dividing line in politics. When people say we have moved beyond right and left, this is what they mean.

Of course, the parties of Scenario 3 are not just progressive groups such as Syriza, Podemos, and the SNP. It also includes nationalist groupings such as the Finns’ Party—which combines left-wing economics with social conservatism. And UKIP, likewise described as right wing by lazy analysts of British politics, has policies that are not conventionally right-wing, and also voters who support (for example) re-nationalising privatised utilities.

Mobilising support

So we’re in a world where representative politics, and increasingly, local politics as well, is dominated by the voices of those who have lost out from the long wave of globalisation, while elite institutions are dominated by those who have gained much from them and want to hold on to their gains. But since the first group is now far more effective at mobilising support, the elite group need to ensure that mobilisation has as little effect as possible.

And what Syriza succeeded in doing, during the “negotiations” with the EU, was for the first time to make all of this explicitly and absolutely visible, even to people who hadn’t been paying attention. So I think it’s worth understanding some of the political theory that sits behind Syriza, because it might have something to do with the future of progressive politics, or even just democracy.

Principally, it has drawn on the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek-French political theorist, who argued in the ‘60s and the ‘70s that the state was structurally capitalist; it didn’t matter who ran it, it would produce capitalist outcomes (even if this involved disadvantaging particular groups of capitalists). So, he said, it was necessary in effect to surround the state with social movements that were outside of the state.

Politics and social movements

As an aside, for those of us of a certain age who studied political science back then, he was best known for his stand-off with Ralph Miliband, who objected to Poulantzas’ version because it removed agency. [*] It was perhaps possible to believe in the 1970s that Miliband might have been right about agency and Poulantzas wrong, when politicians had delivered decent levels of prosperity and reduced inequality across rich countries to historic lows.

But not now. And the behaviour of the European institutions in dealing with the Greek crisis are a striking vindication of Poulantzas’ argument. And since he killed himself in 1979, perhaps he had some sense of what was coming.

But the other half is worth noticing as well. Everywhere that progressive ideas are healthy, and are supported by a decent political base, it is because political parties have engaged with and supported, or even grown out of, social movements: for example, in Greece, Spain, Scotland, Iceland.

Political energy

It’s not as if there isn’t political energy in these spaces: actually, social movements are teeming with energy even as they start to subvert capitalism. Charles Leadbetter touched on this in his quirky list of things a new Labour leader could adopt, all of which were certainly more meaningful than austerity-light economics and “aspiration,” whatever that is, both of which you can get perfectly well from the Conservative party.

More substantially, it’s the argument of Paul Mason’s forthcoming book PostCapitalism, which I hope to come back to in another post. From one early extract:

In the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis.

Of course, as Syriza has also discovered, “the circuits of capital” will try to kill you just as soon as they get the chance, even if it involves taking more losses than otherwise and pursuing policies that make no sense outside of ideology. But even here there are signs of small changes. The last Greek Prime Minister to mention the “referendum” word was replaced instantly just for mentioning democracy.

And the demographics are striking. The largest casualties of Scenario 1 are the young. Everywhere their unemployment rates are historically high and even those in work are squeezed financially. And unsurprisingly, everywhere they are flocking to the politics of Scenario 3. The young voted strongly for Scottish independence; in Greece, 18-24 year olds voted 85% for the ‘no’ vote. Scenario 1 does not have time on its side.

* The joke about the Miliband family is that Ralph believed that politicians couldn’t change anything and his sons devoted their lives to proving him right. It’s a good joke, but it’s a more accurate summary of Poulantzas’ position.