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What We Learned from Left-Wing Politics in 2015

Left-wing politicians and parties had a pretty exciting 2015 in terms of winning elections, but everything they hate is still very much around.

by Sam Kriss
Dec 23 2015, 4:00pm

Photo via Pixabay

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The political left are a notoriously miserable lot, so you could be forgiven for forgetting that, on the face of it, it's had a pretty good 2015. On the face of it. In Greece, what's been called the most left-wing European government since 1991 won not one but two general elections. New anticapitalist parties are owning respectable poll shares in France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany. In the UK, the Labour leadership was taken by Jeremy Corbyn, an Old Labour veteran on a mission to take the party back to its radical working-class roots. In the United States, there's been a surprising surge for the Bernie Sanders campaign, with hundreds of thousands of Americans eager to vote for a self-described democratic socialist. And while the left is losing ground in Venezuela and Argentina, there have been enough successes to show that where it puts the effort in, it really can win.

Except for left-wing politics, gaining power in elections isn't really the point; the point is to actually make things better. And things aren't getting better. Everything we hate is still very much around: the swamping inequality, the murderous wars, the general sense that we're all living in history's most complex torture device. For all its victories in local and national polls, the anti-austerity left hasn't been able to stop austerity; the internationalist left hasn't been able to stop imperialist adventures or to stop people drowning in the Mediterranean; the counter-hegemonic left hasn't been able to find any convincing narrative beyond the one bequeathed to it by the authoritarian right.

In general, the hard left tends to be a slow learner; that's why there are still thousands of people who think selling newspapers on university campuses is a productive revolutionary activity. But if we were to try to pick up a few big lessons from what happened in 2015, these might be a good start.

RESPECTABILITY DOESN'T HELP ANYONE

Photo via Wiki

Near the beginning of the year, the left learned an exciting new word: "Pasokification." Named for Pasok, the Greek socialist party, previously part of the pro-austerity governing coalition, it referred to the process by which an old, boring, staid centre-left establishment would be suddenly hollowed out by a new and insurgent group like Syriza. But something strange happened to Syriza as it rose to take power: It began to exhibit what could be called a second stage of Pasokification, in which it started to horribly morph into its predecessor. Some of this might have had something to do with the fact that many of the young and daring Syriza politicians were in fact exactly the same people as the old guard they'd displaced, canny Pasok operatives jumping from one sinking ship directly into another.

In January of this year, Syriza stormed to victory on a radical anti-austerity platform, while Pasok was reduced from the 160 seats it held in 2012 to 13, making it the joint-smallest party in Parliament. In September, Syriza renewed its mandate by promising harsh cuts but financial stability, a steady and responsible management of the economy that would limit the country's debt at the small price of any hope for the future. When the old coalition was in power, they were kept from capitulating entirely to Greece's creditors by the strong pressure from the Left; with the radical Left in charge, there was little to stop the banks getting everything they wanted. In its bid to be seen as a respectable party of government, Syriza became, well, just as bad as all the other respectable parties of government. There are already signs of a similar process taking place elsewhere: In Spain, for instance, the new leftist Podemos party spent most of 2015 inching steadily rightwards, scrapping its demands for universal basic income and a "citizens audit" of public debt, and replacing them with vague liberal platitudes. Instead of filling voters with new confidence, these capitulations have instead had them abandoning the party in droves. This desperation to seem responsible is an affliction common to new parties; in the end, it makes them entirely useless.

MAINSTREAM PARTIES CAN'T HELP US EITHER

Photo by saulalbert

Despite the fears of a habitually jittery establishment, the pattern of Pasokification hasn't really repeated itself in the English-speaking countries: While the center-left is still in freefall, there's nothing from the outside rising to take its place. Instead, leftists have attempted to work within established parties: Jeremy Corbyn taking a landslide victory in the Labour leadership race; Bernie Sanders fighting a private insurgency within the Democrats. After all, if left parties can be comprehensively shifted rightwards, why can't the reverse happen too? But as Corbyn's experience shows, this doesn't really work. There's too much money at stake, and a core culture that can't be changed: Whoever has the leadership, we won't build socialism by voting in some Labour MP who looks like they should be working at Foxtons.

Corbyn claimed to simply be embodying the Labour party's core values, but on those points where he really does differ from Labour tradition, the party's opposition has been vicious. The most damaging internal rifts have been on Trident and Syria: these are points of principle. The Labour party has always been bloodthirsty—it's a party of war; long before Iraq and Afghanistan its MPs scrapped their proletarian internationalism to cheerlead for World War One, later Labour governments were happy to brutally repress decolonial struggles on the fringes of Empire. Labour has an ingrained culture of dropping bombs on people from a great height; on this front, it won't budge an inch. Meanwhile in America, Sanders is trying to smooth over this problem by trying to out-warmonger the warmongers, making a big show of his support for the US air war in the Balkans and angrily denying any suggestion that he's a pacifist. It's an uphill struggle: Hillary Clinton has the total destruction of Libya to brag about; all he has are a few votes for military action.

BEING ANTI-AUSTERITY ISN'T ENOUGH

Photo Chris Bethell/Oscar Webb

Every so often, there's a big anti-austerity protest in the center of London. "Not one cut," they chant, marching through a socially-engineered hellscape full of empty houses made of money and rough sleepers hiding behind the bins. 'Not one cut,' they chant, stumbling blindly, like someone whose blood is steadily draining out through thousands of lacerations. It's too late; the cuts have happened. Anti-austerity parties have taken control of national governments, but austerity carries on. This might have something to do with the blank negationism of the movement—opposing austerity has come to function as a substitute for actually doing anything about it. Opposing austerity has become like opposing the sunset: You do it at the end of the day, as the light grows dimmer; nothing changes but it makes you feel better about yourself.

Labour were nominally anti-austerity: They opposed the Tory cuts, they were passionately against them, but they voted for them anyway. Syriza were anti-austerity: They opposed the total wreckage of Greek society even as they carried it out. With the financial bodies that govern the world utterly committed to our current path directly into the abyss, the idea that a government could end austerity and balance out the wealth a bit, while keeping everything else fundamentally the same, isn't reasonable, it's deluded. A return to nice postwar social democracy would be far harder to achieve than the total revolutionary reconstruction of the state. If we're serious about making a better world, the last year should teach us to be not against austerity, but for communism.

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