2 Jan 2015

Enter Europe’s new populist left movement

Picture: Pablo Iglesias, secretary general of Spain’s new left Podemos party, greets his supporters as he arrives to speak at a party conference in Barcelona last month.

Spain's Anti-Austerity Podemos Party Leader Pablo Iglesias Meeting

The prospect of populist left election victories in Greece and Spain this year is real. So real, in fact, that the survivors of the old, un-populist left from the 20th century have concluded, in advance, that disaster looms.

All across the social media you can, as you search for the words Podemos and Syriza, read as many denunciations from the hard left as you can critiques from the right.

Though insignificant in themselves, the pained outrage of these far-left groups is a signal that something big and real is happening in European politics. To me it looks like a new form of social democracy is being born – and one moulded to a very different set of priorities to those that guided Labour and its socialist variants in the 20th century.

It was the Bloomberg journalist Joe Wiesenthal who invented the term for it: “Tsiglesias” – a portmanteau for the Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias. But what does Tsiglesias actually stand for? When in office how might it react? And if successful, is it replicable across Europe?

Iglesias’s party did not exist 18 months ago; Syriza – a more conventional product of the new left of the 1970s – has evolved both its politics and structure rapidly as the prospect of coming to power looms. But if you look at their respective manifestos, they are moulded around the 2014 Euro election programme of the European left, whose 52-strong group in the European parliament is four members bigger than Ukip’s.

Debt restructuring

At the centre of the economic policy is debt restructuring: the proposal that the scale of debt reduction facing most of peripheral Europe is so large that it will suppress growth for a generation. A reversal of austerity, some mild fiscal expansion and the reversal or end of privatisation programmes completes the basic list.

Though this runs at odds with both the principles and rules of the eurozone, almost none of the new-left populist parties wants to leave it. Instead they propose the ECB becomes a true lender of last resort, using quantitative easing to revive consumption and manage debt forgiveness.

The new-left parties, in other words, want Europe to become a Keynesian fiscal union with a high welfare state. It is not the status quo but it is not what the Marxist professors who staff their economics departments dreamed of when they were on the streets in 1968 either.

The apoplectic reaction of free-market commentators to the possibility of a Syriza government in Greece, or a Socialist-Podemos coalition in Spain later this year, poses an interesting question, whose answer could shape politics in Britain just as much as in the Euro periphery.

Is a Keynesian welfare state, committed to public ownership and deficit-financed growth either possible, or permissible, in the European Union?

So far, much of what’s driven Euroscepticism has been the desire of conservative voters in various EU countries to take back control of issues important to the right: migration, business regulation, crime, agriculture and foreign policy. There’s been barely a glimmer of opposition to the EU project among traditional social democrats.

Taking leads from Greece and Spain

But the electoral logic of Greece and Spain may be about to change that. Within a month, Tsipras stands a 50:50 chance of becoming the Greek prime minister. Though he is ready for a prolonged negotiation with Frankfurt and Washington over debt reduction, he is pledged to cancel the austerity measures imposed by Greece’s creditors on day one.

A clash with the ECB, the commission and probably parts of the Greek state are pretty likely thereafter – and the outcome will be watched closely across Europe. Because if basic Keynesianism and an expanded welfare state are not permissible, and if the European institutions are seen actively to collude with attempts to sabotage them, a change of sentiment about the EU on the centre-left might follow.

If you study the programme of the new European left, much of it is not economic. Podemos, which has recruited thousands of young activists from the indignado protest movement of 2011, led its manifesto with demands to repeal anti-protest laws, for abortion rights and for the right of Spanish regions independence.

Syriza’s 2012 programme emphasised – as well as anti-austerity policies – demands like drug decriminalisation, de-militarisation of the police, withdrawal from Nato and recognition of Palestine.

The principles that radicalised young people across Europe in 2011-12, and which have continued to guide numerous protest movements since then, are summed up by the oft-repeated phrase: “I don’t want to live in an economy”.

The one thing Bolshevism had in common with mainstream social democracy was that they were defined by economic programmes. The new populist left has begun from the recognition that – in the highly marketised, globalised and granular economy created in the past 25 years – social justice begins at a small scale and from below.It is as much about restoring the power of agency to deprived and shattered communities, and autonomy to peoples lives, as it is about delivering percentage points against various economic measures.

And the absolute baseline for the youth swarming into the new left parties is that the state must get out and stay out of their private lives.

What about at home?

In Britain – beyond the one-man turbulence that is Russell Brand – the only political force that understood the power of these issues was the Radical Independence Campaign in the Scottish referendum. It promoted the idea that Scotland should become the “warm south of Scandinavia” – and if you think about it, all Podemos and Syriza are really trying to do is bring the Scandinavian model to the Aegean and the Med.

But here’s the problem: in a neoliberal world, even the basic welfare state can look revolutionary. Most projections for the survival of free-market capitalism involve the creation of greater inequality, a smaller state sector and a lower-paid workforce.

It is, then, most likely not over some prolonged debt restructure process that a populist left government in Greece or Spain might clash with the Euro authorities and the local elites; rather, on “Scandinavian” issues like police demilitarisation, abortion, the re-regulation of the labour market or an attempt to provide basic humanitarian solutions for illegal migrants clamouring at the borders of both countries.

For more than a decade, radical demonstrators have held up banners saying “Another World Is Possible”. This year we might get to see what phase one of that other world looks like. The question it poses for the EU institutions and the elites who run them is existential: is another strategy even tolerable?

The answer will make 2015 a critical year for the wider left in Europe. The whole crisis and decline of European social democracy after 2008 was triggered by the conviction that alternatives to austerity do not exist. For politicians like Ed Miliband, Francois Hollande and for that matter Jim Murphy, it is not the fate of Syriza they should be focused on but the fate of their own sister social-democratic party in Greece, Pasok. It, currently, stands on 4.6 per cent. Two years ago it ruled Greece.

However inexperienced, naive, and lacking in machine-party discipline the new populist left in Europe is, it is setting the agenda.

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19 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    There it is again………”Hard left”………But NEVER Hard Right, let alone far right or ultraright.

    Gawd knows what a puppet like you would label the Kiev Nazis – probably “right of centre” or some other pabulum.

    The point is, of course, that propaganda mouthpieces like you deceive less and less people.

    It may take years, but in the end people like you will lose.

  2. Pete Radcliff says:

    Paul, you argue that the new populist left is “….about restoring the power of agency to deprived and shattered communities, and autonomy to peoples lives” whilst renegotiating the structure of their debt with the Euro authorities – something that you argue that Tsipras is happy to have a prolonged negotiation about. But what do you mean by this?
    The risk to me would be a continuation of the devastation of, in particular, the Greek poor – now a huge proportion of the Greek people.
    Syriza, if it took government, would need to provide millions of jobs – quickly. Whilst Golden Dawn has been beaten back somewhat, the organized/ fascist right traditions would exploit continued stagnancy. Syriza would need to directly take control of the economy and run it in breach of conventional capitalist principles, of agreed debt and expected profit. Or they would need to enable working class people to do so directly themselves and build the governing superstructures that allow them to organise that effectively.
    This may be what you mean by the “restoration of agency” but apart from populist rhetoric I can’t see any practical plan from Syriza to do this. The ‘populism’ is partly the problem.

  3. nick j says:

    be realistic, demand the impossible.

  4. Billy McChord says:

    Excellent article, there has been some online discussion in Scotland regarding Syriza’s ability to provide a way out of Greece’s grinding austerity due to the disparate groups involved however as a Radical Independence activist in Scotland I welcome this movement and if being “inexperienced, naive and lacking in machine party discipline” means young people building a movement that wont replicate the over centralised, self-serving cronyism and control freakery of our current parties, then all to the good.

  5. Ben says:

    More ‘smoke and mirrors economic babble’ for 2015. The Troika, it’s backers and dependents have decimated Europe with it’s failed policies, militarism and secret agendas. To frame the current situation with terms such as Keynsian, marxism and socialism, adds weight to the suspicion of complicity.

  6. VN Gelis says:

    Greek opinion polls like media are owned by corporates. They are pretending PASOK won’t disappear like they pretend Samaras is still the most popular person to lead Greece! In 2012 in the first election Syriza was given 9% in polling and got double that. PASOKs 46% in 2009 has to go somewhere and it won’t go to ND.
    The only issue is how large the majority will be. The Germans need to carry out their threats and boot Greece out as Fuchs promised. If they don’t they will compromise. Syria’s programme isn’t that radical promising 300k jobs out of 1.5m unemployed a 10% increase in pensions a €250 rise in the minimum wage and an end to the hated ‘haratsi’ property tax…
    Big deal.

  7. Andrew Lydon says:

    Greece has had b… all proper solidarity when it has been in this situation before, so I think thought needs to be given to what will be a back drop to much in the rest of Europe.

    For my part I think we need to challenge the narrative of Greece as basket case. And as the real basket case I would like to draw attention to Poland – the so-called pin-up for the post-communist reforms.

    Poland is a country which has condemned many of its people to poverty and unemployment and a whole generation of its young people are already now well established working overseas. And keen not to go back.

    Yet the former Polish PM Donald Tusk is now leading the political side of Europe, and will be the spokesman for German led austerity against those countries that resist.

    By contrast to Poland even the Greek political class could be said to defended the interests of their people.

    Further most Poles don’t bother to vote, even though they were supposed to be the vanguard of the march of democracy.


    By contrast Greeks vote.


  8. Gabriele Battaglia says:

    Why do you call these movements “populist” or “naive”? In my opinion, while the world is getting more and more multipolar (the new Eurasian block, the Brics, etc), a program based on getting rid of the dollar and the Nato while calling for restructuring the debt is more and more realistic instead. You have new possible counterparties beyond Washington, the IMF, the WB, the EB and this is positive for the people

  9. Dave Timoney says:

    You are certainly correct to suggest that the economic policies of the “new left” are actually little more than mild social democracy, rather than the fiscal terror bruited by most of the media, and that if this is resisted by Brussels it could result in a growing anti-EU sentiment on the centre-left (and eroding legitimacy is where Syriza’s negotiating leverage with the EU will lie, not in threats of Grexit).

    But you are also ignoring the warning signs that a stylistic rejection (“I don’t want to live in an economy”) and the fetishisation of autonomy (“the state must get out and stay out of their private lives”) are the same impulses that helped fragment the left and fuel the neoliberal turn after 1968.

    If Syriza and Podemos are to be effective, it will be by focusing on policies that boost employment and narrow inequality. Their strength lies in the fact that establishment parties will be prepared to concede enough in these areas to maintain their own dominance. Their weakness is that the establishment may deliberately manoeuvre them into a focus on more divisive issues, such as immigration.

  10. Philip says:

    All power to the elbows of the new left. They seem attached to people in the real world rather than dangling on the strings pulled by the bankers & the small number of wealthy people who do well out of the present economic system

  11. John says:

    Excellent analysis Paul and well spoken as always.

    This theme deserves wide audience reach and repetition.
    A Public Support and Investment State using cheap debt but staying out of Nannyism and private intrusions. Discuss

  12. PhilD says:

    This analysis is correct and very important. The analysis these new parties have made is correct. The crony, finacialised capitalism the glabalised economies support is going nowhere, they concentrate capital and by reducing wages, lead to deflation and recession. The banks, though themselves dependent on welfare from central banks, insist on austerity and privatisation of state assets. If the EU cannot change its neo-liberal ways it will fail quite likely through violent revolt and state repression. Its that serious.

  13. quietoaktree says:

    “and if you think about it, all Podemos and Syriza are really trying to do is bring the Scandinavian model to the Aegean and the Med.”

    I have thought about it.

    The intention of equating Greece (and Greeks) with tax paying Scandinavian societies is somewhat overly stated (an understatement).

    Greece is basically a ´parasitic´ society –both on itself and others and has nothing in common with ´high tax´ Scandinavia.




    ” It will be very difficult in any case for the state to collect the 6.07 billion euros from taxpayers that the budget has set as a target for December.”

    I somehow doubt similar Spanish problems ?

  14. clive needle says:

    Excellent analysis as usual, thanks, important identification and articulation of trends. I wonder if you feel that some of the approaches by the Greens are becoming similar in the UK context? The big question must be, if not state institutions to deliver changes, what will be the new effective mechanisms?

  15. Irlandos says:

    Too much generalisation, I am afraid. While I would welcome ‘restoring the power of agency to deprived and shattered communities, and autonomy to peoples lives’, the idea that Greeks’ key demand is that ‘the state must get out and stay out of their private lives’ is very odd. More relevant is what you wrote on 21 December: ‘As ….Yannis Palaiologos points out in … The 13th Labour of Hercules: Inside the Greek Crisis, the main problem in Greece is …..the fact that an independent state, standing above local and sectoral claims, barely exists.’

    I don’t know whether you were paying attention to PASOK in the late 70s/early 80s but your enthusiasm for Syriza reminds me of the way some on the British left greeted that rise. I really hope not but fear that history will be repeating itself – this time as tragedy

  16. John Ryan says:

    It’s refreshing to find a site which deals with reality and not the mumbo jumbo saturating most of the press as well as the net. More power to Paul Mason – how he managed to work alongside the egotists at the BBC (eg Mark Urban and John Simpson) was always a puzzle to me.
    Keep us informed about significant developments in this country, in Europe and generally in the world.

  17. Strategist says:

    What about the Green Party of England and Wales?
    I think they get these issues – and young voters in England and Wales are seeing that the Green get it.

  18. VN Gelis says:

    PASOK originated from the Unity of the Centre in the 50s and 60s. A pure capitalist party whose social base was the rise of the urban middle class during the mass flight from the villages. It attacked its social base come 2009 and the arrival of IMF.
    Samaras and ND completed this by attacking their social base shopkeepers property owners. Only around 15 people out of 100 voted for them both in 2012 so the idea that they will be able to expand their electoral base again is a fallacy. Samaras has refused to get rid of the hated haratsi-property tax and repossessions dangle over Greek people’s heads.

  19. Andrew Dundas says:

    Syriza’s main objective is to break the stranglehold of the the greek oligarchs who dominate the economic and political life of Greece. And then introduce Syriza’s version of a Keynesian welfare state.
    The austerity posture of the right in Europe is a flawed concept. Central Banks’ QE policies are creating money to simply replace the money supply destroyed by excessive saving and debt repayments.
    In the UK, the cost of servicing national debt is far less than in the mid 1990s.
    There is no need to squeeze the incomes of the poorest people anywhere in Europe. We should squeeze the oligarchs whose reckless actions have caused the crisis in Greece and elsewhere.

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