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What have Syriza, Podemos, and Bernie Sanders accomplished?


In the current issue of the New Left Review, Susan Watkins surveys a number of left-wing parties, movements, and figures in Europe and the US that have recently emerged to contend for electoral power, with decidedly mixed results. In examining Syriza, Podemos, Bernie Sanders, and others, Watkins parses the geopolitical circumstances that gave rise to these tendencies, and asks what, if anything, they have done to undermine the neoliberal consensus. An excerpt:

How should these forces be characterized? Respectful of NATO, anti-austerity, pro-public investment and (more guardedly) ownership, sceptical of ‘free trade’: as a first approximation, we might call them new, small, weak social democracies. The founding purpose of the original, late 19th-century social-democratic parties was to defend and advance the interests of labour, under the conditions of industrial manufacturing; this was what differentiated them from the older parliamentary factions, which advanced the interests of landowners, rentiers and industrialists. In Europe the attempts to found these parties were largely successful; through the revolutionary crisis of WWI and after, they then redefined themselves as defending wage-earners’ interests within the existing system. In the US, the attempt to found a labour party failed; from the 1930s, organized labour and a small social-democratic faction operated for electoral purposes within the framework of the Democratic Party. Originally a landowners’ coalition of the old sort, this came to function in the 20th century as a modern ‘centre left’—and the model for the European social democracies, when the accumulation crisis of the post-war economies brought about their conversion to Third Way social-liberal parties. Their platform of ‘globalized neoliberalism with a social conscience’ then proved a fair-weather formula, the second term evaporating after the financial crisis.

The founding purpose of the new left oppositions is to defend the interests of those hit by the reigning response to the crisis—bailouts for private finance matched by public-sector austerity and promotion of private-sector profit-gouging, at the expense of wage-workers. In the broadest sense, this is, again, a defence of labour against capital, within the existing system. But if they can be defined as new, small, weak social democracies, each term needs qualification. New: Corbynism can’t really be described as such; Labour’s soft left is familiar from the 1980s—though as an effective political force, arguably it died and has been reborn. Small: in comparison to the million-member parties of the golden age of social democracy, of course, but also in relation to their national contexts, where the mainstream parties can usually muster around two-thirds of the vote; nevertheless, as noted, some 150,000 Podemos members voted on its coalition policy, compared to only 96,000 PSOE members in Sánchez’s consultation. Weak: in the modesty of their demands—or what they think it feasible to demand; the classic social-democratic parties, flourishing in periods of capitalist expansion (1980s, 1950s), aimed at a tangible redistribution of wealth. Social democratic: if so, this is not what many would have predicted ten or fifteen years ago. The ideologies of the alter-globo and ‘social movements’—even of Occupy and 15-M—were closer to a soft anarchism, or left-liberal cosmopolitanism, more or less informed by intersectional identity consciousness, depending on national context. Those tendencies are still around, as are surviving far-left strains: the new oppositional structures by no means exhaust the movements’ aspirations; but where protest has crystallized into national political forms, they have not so far been anarchist or autonomist.

Social democracy is the avowed starting point of Sanders and Corbyn, as, in part, of Mélenchon, though his programme contains more heterodox elements, including sweeping constitutional change—not a social-democratic trait. Podemos and Syriza originated in more radical traditions, but re-shaped their projects in a calculus of the available electoral space. Podemos has also established itself as a fighter for those afflicted by foreclosures in the housing-bubble meltdown, a demand that exceeds—or post-dates—classical social democracy. The fuite en avant of Syriza Mark Two towards the social liberalism, or neoliberal austerity, of the other, formerly social-democratic, now tawdry centre-left parties, serves to confirm rather than contradict the general rule.