What’s Left?

The neo-liberal discourse dominant in the last three decades has collapsed. But what is the state of the European Left?

Horror vacui:
Nature abhors a vacuum. Written some 2,300 years ago, the thesis of Aristotle is
also true for the world of social political ideas. And it seems that it is the
most precise possible description of our situation today, early 2009. The
preeminent neo-liberal discourse that was dominant in the last three decades
has collapsed by today. Framed by nationalized banks, community cash injections
to market players, direct intervention on the stock exchanges, the history of
the global economic crisis shows clearly that a completely new set of rules
based on very different theoretical principles will operate from now (and this
process is far from over yet).

While practice is
progressing towards a very clear direction that brings the role of the state
into the forefront once again, theory can only trail behind all that. It would
be a serious theoretical challenge to define how the world will look like after
the crisis. The attitude of left-wing economists is well reflected by the joy
of Will Hutton who called the collapse of Lehman Brothers the sweetest day of social
democracy. Others point out that, compared to previous periods of state
expansion (the 1930’s or the 1960’s), there is a professional consensus that
this is a temporary expansion of the state only. However, I believe that
it is too early to herald the ideological renaissance of proactive social
democracy. It is more the fear of the vacuum that we can see, much more than a
desired ideological renewal.

balance that was: the Third Way

Since the Beatles –
and perhaps with the exception of David Beckham – the most successful British
cultural export article has been the New Labour Party of Blair and Brown
characterised by the third way. What was the reason for this international success
that is far from self-explanatory? I think the main reason was that it could
recombine the dominant liberal ideology along leftist values in such manner
that it became attractive also for the middle-class. The third way – as we know
from the books of Giddens – was looking for, and indeed found a progressive
path between traditional, orthodox social democracy and the new neo-liberal
hegemony. This led to political success through useful and efficient social projects.

The third way could
also be successful because it implemented the unity of innovative policies that
were based on coherent values and embedded in an established ideological
context. Also it could implement a comprehensive organizational and
communicational modernization in the Labour Party that was becoming too heavy
and frozen in its past. This organizational reform that domesticated and
humanized liberalism was a recipe for success that the whole of Europe was open
to. Two data that say more than any amount of words: at the turn of the millennium
when the Progressive Governance movement started there were 15 social
democratic governments in the EU-15 countries. Today, even if we count
generously, there are maximum 6 countries from the 27 members states where
social democrats are in power, and we are quite far from being able to talk
about the dominance of a coherent ideology. This restructuring did not happen like a landslide but was rather part of a
process. On the other hand, it also indicates that the troubles did not start
with the financial crisis last autumn: the crisis situation has only
strengthened the dilemmas of looking for a way out and has put them into a new,
more dramatic context.

Looking back at the
history of the left in the last decade, the work done in the framework of Progressive
Governance was the peak of the process, from where the road took us downwards –
at least in Europe. First because of terrorism, and because of the anxiety
caused by immigration and the sustainability issues of welfare and social
systems the progressive left came under increasing pressure after 2001, which
in turn led to an increased loss in the political space. The fundamental
characteristic of this new situation was highlighted by Wouter Bos when, after neo-liberalism, he identified strengthening and increasingly
isolationist populism as the main ideological competitor to the progressive
left. This duel in the headwind of the zeitgeist usually led to election
defeats of the progressives – even in places where the fundamental dilemma was
in fact confronted.

interim state

The global economic
crisis halted the process of searching for a way out for an instant – short
term crisis management tasks must come to the forefront in a state of
emergency. Not that the task has become any simpler as we look ahead into the
future: the downsizing of production capacities to fit shrinking consumption,
and hesitantly and partly involuntarily reconsidered welfare benefits are
expected to strengthen the anxieties that have already appeared in the
beginning of the 2000’s. The challenge facing the progressive left is at least as
big as at the end of the eighties – as the task then was to find a new
ideological path between the neo-liberal hegemony and orthodox leftist values,
one should construct the antidote to isolationist and populist ideologies that
are getting stronger on both the left and the right.

For that we have to
dig down to the fundamental values which define the social democratic model as
it is under continuous pressure to modernize. This does not at all mean that
the program of the third way should be thrown into the waste bin of history. It
does not seem that there is a viable alternative to capitalism, however
regulated, and the market economy operating in coordination with social
aspects. However enthusiastically some left-wing leaders leash out against bankers
and speculators with a rhetoric that almost reminisces of good old times,
cooperation with the business sector – an important tool and also value of the
third way – will also remain with us.

Nevertheless, we
presumably must reconsider some other core elements of our ideology. In case of
state services, securing the possibility of choice for customers will probably
be pushed into the background by the security of universal services – the approach
of the third way probably needs to be revised in this case. The risk community
will stay with us, however, the ability and readiness of the individual will
probably be smaller than envisaged by the original third way concepts. The life
career model that spans from baby bonds through student loans to bank
facilities that cover housing loan repayment instalments and to various refined
pension saving schemes is also questioned. The model of the citizen who manages
his own assets and makes investments will face substantial problems not only in
countries with an undeveloped financial culture like Hungary but also in
regions of Europe that don’t carry a post-communistic legacy.

But these do not
concern the core values that I mentioned above, so our revision will also not
equal the outlining of a new, coherent concept of the world. In order to live
up to the challenge of such a greater task, if the context is so difficult to
comprehend, it makes sense to retreat to “anthropological constants”
and think about the lessons of the crisis from the aspect of group psychology.

We know from group
psychological research that when old rules suddenly lose their meaning, when
“the usual order of things changes”, when earlier habits no longer
give guidance in the wilderness of life, the need to belong to the group
increases. Ethological experience shows that primates will cuddle up together
when the storm and lightning come. Experiencing togetherness is there to
mitigate the anxiety caused by the unusual and unknown. 

We can draw two
consequences if we accept this metaphor as a starting point for the current
global social and economic situation. On the one hand, the pendulum that swung
towards individualism so far will swing back in the next period. On the other
hand, it is easy to see that defensive collective identities that seem to give
an “answer” to the situation for the populist right, such as
“the nation defined in contrast to aliens”, the “hard working
middle-class as opposed to parasites” are almost naturally available to
the right. Once again, the progressive left faces a problem here: the
definition of such collective identities is not self-evident for it, and it
usually is not its strength.

The whole thing is
further complicated by the fact that this communal experience has a different
pattern today than in earlier structures of the public dimension. As Chris
Anderson, the editor of Wired Magazine points out in his book “Long
Tail”, cultural consumption and the identities formed as a consequence
become more and more fragmented and segmented with the spreading of the
The prevailing trend gets lost in the shadow of global idols and allows the
formation of such endlessly diverse communities through digital technologies
that were unfathomable before. Ninety-eight percent of the hundreds of
thousands of songs available on iTunes are downloaded at least once a year –
exciting and unknown groups are born in the “long tail”, only a few
members on an individual basis but, aggregated, they happen under that curve
that stretches practically endlessly. If this cultural pattern becomes
dominant, then we have good reason to assume that the large collective
identities mitigating these anxieties will also change. Even if they define
themselves along the traditional labels of the “nation”,
“middle-class”, “tough, masculine, honest people”, the
reality behind these labels, the communicaitonal structure will be innovative.
This is a challenge also for the defensive, inward turning right – but it
generates no automatic advantage for the progressive side.

On the other hand,
we can also think about the history of the near past from the aspect of anxiety
management. Maybe it is no accident that the progressive success period of the
nineties evolved in parallel to the end of the cold war and the spreading of
the connecting universal optimism of the Fukuyama kind. That zeitgeist was in
support of individualization and the relative devaluation of defensive
collective identities. However, this is not the end of history but the end of a
story today: the end of the story of free market capitalism.

Changes based on
group dynamics go against the value changes of the last 30 years. In modern
societies, according to sociologists, the increase of material wealth and a
stronger development of the middle-class nurtured the values of
individualization and growing freedom.  
These trends are interrupted, maybe even broken by the crisis, and we
cannot even exclude durable movements in the opposite direction. However,
ideology is different from social scientific theories, among others, in that it
does not wish to merely interpret reality through understanding. The purpose of
interpretation is the shaping of reality through political utilisation.
Therefore in our case we cannot be satisfied with stating that the next decade
will probably prefer defensive collective identities, a situation with which
right-wing populism is assumed to find easier to get attuned to than the
progressive left as we know it today.

a new equilibrium

The situation is
difficult but far from hopeless. Namely, we can see a gradually enfolding
experiment for the seamless 
coordination of the left and the communal principle in the largest and
strongest democracy of the world, the United States. Of course I mean the election
victory and governance of Barack Obama, which – even if it does not deny what I
have written so far but –  it
demonstrates that it is not impossible to give an answer that can successfully
release the anxiety and fill the ideological vacuum. The rhetoric of the Obama
campaign is interesting from three aspects in this context.

On the one hand, it
not only demonstrated but also reclaimed for Democrats the collective desires
attached to the greatness of the American nation and the ability to make the
American dream come true. After eight years of Bush administration and the
disappointment in the promise of “compassionate conservatism”, these
phenomena were stronger than ever, which was augmented by the historical stakes
of the election: the election of the first black or woman president (vice
president), the biggest crisis since several generations, and finally the hope
of starting over and reunifying the country.

This was primarily
attached to the consciously undertaken role of Obama as a healer, which offered
a remedy for both historical and current grievances. The new Democrat president
took a third-way position in a new sense of the word: he could overcome
traditional division lines, and was able to reach out his hand to the majority
of Americans despite his liberal-leftist background. Even if he did not do that
with a Democrat, Clintonite public policy approach, he is still, in the philosophical
, the worthy continuer of third-way traditions that focus on the
middle-class and the inhabitants of Main Street in the countryside in addition
to urban citizens.

Also, one of the
greatest succeses of Obama was that he could attain this national
reconciliation with the decided support of the rainbow coalition that has
traditionally been the objective of Democrats. Namely, in addition to the
middle-class the campaign could also mobilize minorities: in the sense of
races, gender, sexual identity and religion. He was able to create the
coalition of hope by fitting the tiles of the mosaic, which gave a new identity
to social layers that were apolitical or perceived politics as a dandy sport
and turned consciously against it.

This latter thought
leads us to the third concept: the contents of this coalition, collective
identity – the announcement of the “green new deal” has been an
important new element in this in comparison to the 1990’s. With his public
economic stimulus and reform package optimized for the twenty-first century, he
is the first president who has given a priority to the issues of environment
protection and energy in his policies. Joint work to protect the climate of the
planet (and not least to reach the energy independence of the country) means
the integration of a discourse into the mainstream that can be the basis for a
new collective identity, which in turn can become an efficient answer to the
trends of turning inwards by overwriting former division lines.

inspiration but not a model

While reveling in
the euphoria of the beginning of an era dominated by Democrats we should not
forget that the success of Obama happened under very particular circumstances.
These circumstances (getting stuck in the war in Iraq, the dire financial
crisis, the unpopularity of George W. Bush of historical proportions) created
the proper ground for proclaiming the emphatically progressive politics of

However, it is far
from definitely decided if the election victory and governance of Obama will be
the exception or the rule in the years of the progressive left ahead. What is
certain is that the factors of the success of Obama as demonstrated above are a
source of inspiration for all of us. Having said that, it cannot be seen as an
easy-to-copy, coherent system of views and policies that can be
“copy-pasted” into any different economic and social environment. Contrary
to the third way that started its tour around the world with the Clinton
administration in the early nineties, Obama’s way is not yet an (almost)
universal model.

And finally there
is something that links Clinton and Obama. The title of the famous
autobiographical campaign video of Clinton from 1992 was “The Man from
Hope” as the then hopeful candidate had indeed been born in a little town
called Hope. Obama’s slogan was also hope in addition to ‘change’. This is
printed on his posters turned cultural icons, and this is used by his
supporters that roam the Web 2.0 world of the internet. Of course this is no
accident: as any pre-school for campaign strategists will teach you, the
symbolic possession of hope is the key to political success. However, there is
something we forget about in late modern politics: at least on the progressive
side this hope cannot emanate from the charisma of the leader only. Two things
are necessary to form hope into a comprehensive message that reaches many
people. On the one hand it is necessary to demonstrate that we know and
understand what is going on in the world, we are able to project some sort of
order into the chaos, we know where the road forward lays. On the other hand
this solution, this plan should be made socially open; this is the way that we
are going to go down, and You can join this direction in this or that manner,
this is why it will be good or you, this is why you will feel comfortable if
you come along with us, if things work out the way we would like them to work
out. If we think through all these it becomes obvious that progressives of the
‘Old Continent’ face formidable challenges in both dimensions of constructing

So while relying on
it, progressives in Europe should also be prepared for the difficult decade
that lays ahead. They should find an ideology that reflects to the anxiety the
is becoming ever stronger in the society. They should carve out narratives that
can define communities in the progressive way. Collectives that can provide
protection to the people in this insecure environment. The feeling of belonging
to a group that can ascertain that, in the difficult years of reconstruction,
it is not Evil hiding in all of us but the equally omnipresent Good that can
define our deeds.

Tibor Dessewffy,
Sociologist, President of DEMOS Hungary Foundation

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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