The rise of the populist far right in Europe received much attention in the aftermath of the 2014 European elections. Dr. Marina Prentoulis and Dr. Lasse Thomassen, however, argue the decline of the traditional political parties opens the opportunity for the rise of a populist Left movement.
The typical way of interpreting the results of the local and European elections is to stress the rise of the populist far right. There is clearly something to this as the far right has emerged as a leading political force at home and abroad. But this is not the whole story.
One thing UKIP, the French Front National and the Danish People’s Party have in common is their declaration of the end of tolerance towards ‘the others’: migrants and asylum seeks invading ‘our’ space, and the elites hidden in Brussels and Strasburg governing without our consent. Whether ethnic others or political and cultural elites, they are not part of ‘us’, and our intolerance of them is therefore natural. Seen from the mainstream and from the Left, these parties capitalise on the lived anxiety experienced within communities that are less and less homogeneous and more and more subject to changes beyond their control. Although they present themselves as ‘rebels’ against the established politics, they are nothing more than the monstrous offspring of this politics: the politics that allowed democratic accountability and participatory citizenship to take the backseat as neo-liberal interests dominated Europe.
The old parties are clearly in crisis, losing electoral ground to new parties, right, centre and left. Concerned politicians of the mainstream parties are calling meetings to tackle the problem, to respond successfully to this new challenge – a challenge that in their minds no doubt has little to do with them and the neo-liberal policies they have been backing. A challenge that for some time now has been dismissed as ‘populist’, playing on the ignorance, the anxieties and the fears of the ‘peoples’ of Europe.
The success of the radical Left draws less attention. We are referring here to the steady progress of an alternative ‘populist’ discourse of new parties, coalitions and movements across Southern Europe, but also in the north: Syriza in Greece (26% of the vote in the EU elections), Izquierda Unida (9.9%) and Podemos (7.9%) in Spain, the Five Star Movement (21.2%) and L’Altra Europa con Tsipras in Italy (4.3%); but also Die Linke (7.4%) and Front de Gauche (6.3%) in Germany and France respectively. Like the populism of the far right, their discourse too is intolerant of the current political elites. And like right wing populism, it is cast in the name of the peoples of Europe, but this time from the Left.
The mainstream politicians currently treat both the far right and the left under the label ‘Eurosceptics’. The new populism of the Left that is slowly winning ground across Europe is rooted in different legacies and pursues a very different vision than the more successful far right. Whatever their success, one thing is for sure: they have had enough of traditional politics. Since the mobilizations following the economic crisis in the countries of Southern Europe (in Greece, Spain and Italy above all), the new (anti)-political discourse has emerged attacking traditional, representative politics. The ‘Indignados’ and the ‘Aganaktismenoi’ in Spain and Greece respectively, entertained the possibility of ‘direct’ and participatory democracy through people’s assemblies. In Italy, the Five Star Movement brought into play the non-political, anti-establishment outsiders. Even in the UK, the neoliberal political and economic logic was under attack by the Occupy movement. Although the streets have now been disserted by the protesters, the footprints of these movements are still alive in the minds of the peoples of Europe, but also in the political organisations on the Left trying to channel the indignation at local, national and European levels.
In Southern Europe in particular, the existing Left has had to rethink what a ‘party’ is and to engage with grassroots networks exceeding the confines of traditional leftish organizations. Increasingly a previously divided Left is uniting in coalition parties embracing the whole spectrum of leftish, socialist ideals. Izquierda Unida in Spain ended the fetishism of the party by declaring that the party is nothing but a vehicle for social change coming from below. At the same time, they are challenged by the biggest surprise of the Spanish elections: Podemos, a non-party party that sprang from the Indignados movement. Syriza in Greece emphasized not only the importance of electoral politics but also the creation of solidarity networks that cut across ideologies and social groups. In Italy new party-coalitions, such as Sinistra, Ecologia y Liberta emerge standing against the established politics of the country. In France, the Parti de Gauche becomes the wider electoral coalition Front the Gauche.
Two forms of populism, two forms of intolerance. One right, one left. While the far right has embraced the label of populism, the Left is sceptical. The danger is to cede the language of populism to the right.
A Leftish populism cannot be the same as right wing populism. Where the far right speaks in the name of the people as the ethnic nation, the Left must articulate a different people. Where the far right is intolerant of difference, the Left must embrace it. Where the far right is reactionary and wants to go backwards, the Left must be progressive. And where the far right complains about the politicians, the Left must complain about the political system. Changing the Camerons and Milibands for the Farages of the world does not make the political system more inclusive and participatory. This is where the new alternative forms of politics of the Left can make a real change.
As the end of tolerance is winning grounds, left wing populism has a twofold objective. First, to stand firmly against the far-right populism. Second, to dispel the myth that politics has to continue as it always has. People demand to be heard and their anxieties and grievances have to be taken seriously. A new Left is taking shape, one that has been with the people in the streets of Europe. Taking power and allowing the people to be heard, will not be followed by either a storm of crickets and balls of fire or earthquakes and famine. The Left must not cede the populist voice to the right, but embrace it. It must do so not in the name of the fear of the other or in the name of the fear of change. In the name of the people and against the political and economic elites, and embracing progress – things ought precisely not be what they used to be.
As with populism, tolerance is no univocal idea. Both must be articulated in the right way, which is to say that the Left must find its own way of articulating populism and tolerance. It must find its own articulation of the people, and that is, then, the task for the Left: what do the people mean for the Left? And against what is the people pitted?
Dr. Marina Prentoulis is a Lecturer in Media and Politics at the University of East Anglia. Dr Lasse Thomassen is a Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary’s University of London.
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