The dilemma of the European Left

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Italian PM Matteo Renzi speaks during the panel on "Transformational Leadership" in Davos, January, 2015. Michel Euler / Press Association. All rights reserved.No doubt remains: the European left is in
serious crisis. The compromise between capitalism and the state that emerged in
the wake of the Second World War is definitively over, and as the world has
globalized, the role of the state has undergone radical change. This is the
central reason for the left’s current predicament. Globalized capitalism brought
with it the structural erosion of state resources, leaving the European left
between a rock and a hard place, faced with a choice between two equally
unsatisfactory strategies.

The loss of state investment

Let us begin by stating the obvious: the
investments we make today set our course for the future. The left’s vocation is
to orient collective investment towards the least advantaged in our societies
by making choices that correct or complement private investments. To do this
requires a state that is able to invest according to goals other than the ones
selected by the market.

And yet, over the past thirty years, the state
has lost a great deal of its capacity to take initiative in this regard, and
continues to do so. To be certain, states still retain an exclusive hold on
taxation, a source of financial accumulation that, in principle, should allow
them to make autonomous choices.

This power has lost all significance, however.
There are two reasons for this: first, states are saddled with astronomical debt,
forcing them to submit to austerity measures imposed upon them by their lenders.
This has made lenders to states into private governments in their own right; they
decide, de facto and de jure, on policy measures for indebted
countries. Second, European agreements linked to the restructuring of global
capitalism have drastically limited state power to decide and to act. European agreements linked to the restructuring of global
capitalism have drastically limited states’ power to decide and to act. States
can no longer intervene directly in markets without being charged with limiting
or distorting competition; they no longer have the power to issue currency;
they have agreed to place their budgets under tight surveillance.

For all these reasons, the state is no longer a
significant investment instrument. Even when Jean-Claude Juncker sought to
establish a public investment fund, the result was a complicated instrument
that still struggles to attract any significant funding. This is of little
concern to the traditional right, whose policy positions favor privatizing
government functions, even when that means placing them outside national
control. It is, on the other hand, a preoccupation of the Euro-skeptic and
nationalist right, and has thrown the entire European left for a loop.

The left’s two options

For parties on Europe’s left, the option
remains of seeking out alliances with globalized private funds in order to
attract and orient investments in their home countries. Leaders in what we
shall call the “government left,” such as François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron, Sigmar
Gabriel, and Matteo Renzi have chosen this option, under the constant threat of
“investment strikes” (as Wolfgang Streeck calls them) by the private sector’s
global government forces when profit conditions in a given country are not
favorable to them. They bend over backwards to ensure that public goals are
included in the boardroom agendas of multinational corporations, even to the
point of including these corporations in state decision-making processes. The calculus
in this strategy is evident, even when it is deployed with the most
praiseworthy of economic intentions: a threatened elite is clinging to the
sliver of room at the table that has been left to it by the global governing
class. What would they not do for their
invitation to Davos? A threatened elite is clinging
to the sliver of room at the table that has been left to it by the global
governing class. What would they not
do for their invitation to Davos?

This option may well turn out to be a deadly
choice for the left, however, one that leaves it distinguishable from the
reform-oriented right in not much more than name. The left-wing parties that
have followed this path are foundering in indefensible compromises, as François
Hollande’s France clearly shows. Departing from this dead end, we may identify
a second option in the reaffirmation of goals that are diametrically opposed to
those of private governments. The “Indignados,” “Nuit Debout,” and Occupy
movements as well as the movements that have coalesced around environmental and
consumption-based activism have all made this choice in opposition to the government

This other left, which we shall call the
“activist left,” is seeking fundamental changes to our approaches to social
welfare investments. Its primary goals are to move beyond the obsession with
growth at any price, to dismantle inequalities, and to radically alter the
place of work in our society. Behind this first set of goals is an aspiration
to shift our relationship with our environment, not through cosmetic changes,
but by radically re-orienting investments in transportation, energy, agriculture,
health, and other public and social services. For this reason, the activist
left privileges lifestyle choice over full employment as a priority, prefers shortening
the food supply chain to Monsanto-style large-scale
agriculture, and favors public transportation over private car use.

This activist left is often characterized by an
anti-state ethos and has found it tempting to leave the system entirely,
circumventing the state through what is known as the “third” or “citizen”
sector. But by turning its back on state power, is this half of the left not in
danger of slipping back into a revolutionary vision that is far too romantic to
be effective, and in this way condemning itself to impotence?

The second left accuses the first left of
betrayal; the first left sees the second left as a herd of Bourgeois-bohemians
who are not so much Occupying as occupied by daydreams. The first left has established
fragile connections to crucial means, but, with its complacent policy
positions, has lost sight of its ends. The second left is highly imaginative with
regard to end results, but is desperate for the means to pursue them.

Old dilemma; new

It has most likely occurred to the reader that
this is nothing new in the history of the left: proponents of compromise have
always met with opposition from those in favor of radical alternatives. Relations
between political parties and grassroots movements have always been complicated
and even fraught. But there is a salient difference between the debates that
shook and shaped the left in industrial societies and what is happening now – a
difference that has remapped the issue entirely. Before the 1980s, the central
role of state in social regulation was never called into question. Whatever
their differences, reformists, revolutionaries, socialists, and communists
could at least all agree that control over the apparatus of the state was
necessary to transform society. At the beginning of the 1980s, however, legal
and factual arguments began to call this idea into question, throwing off
sparks that ultimately exploded into a conflagration. The
undeniable reality we face today is
that state sovereignty is becoming an illusion, more so every day. 

The undeniable reality we face today is that state sovereignty is becoming an
illusion, more so every day. There are two reasons for this. The first is that
we now live in interlocking networks of states; they vary in size and scale but
all transfer the management of matters once dealt with on a national level to
the supra-state level. This includes functions attributed to the state by centuries-long
tradition, including defence, “foreign” affairs, currency, and public budgets.

There is no great “sovereign” in these
transnational networks, only a series of highly fluid and constantly changing
power relationships that arise from temporary coalitions among
pseudo-sovereigns. (A close look at the details of any European Council summit meeting
provides ample evidence of this.)

The second reason is the tremendous autonomy of
civil society. The state is no longer the only organization working within our
societies; it is not even the only umbrella organization. Schools, businesses, research
fields, religious establishments, sporting activities, and the media all have
their own independent lives. State power exerts less and less gravitational pull
on these spheres. We should note that we are witnessing
the state’s loss of social and economic initiative, while its security role is

The state’s predominance has been called into
question in normative terms as well. Neo-liberal
ideology, of course, has led this charge, highlighting the state’s
inefficiencies and the loss of liberty implied by state sovereignty. It has,
however, been backed from the left, for there are legitimate democratic
critiques to be leveled at what Weber called the “iron cage” of bureaucracy. It
is not unreasonable to raise doubts as to whether it is actually possible or
desirable to change society by decree, to mistrust experts and civil servants
who embrace planning over debate. Nor is it illegitimate to fear excessive
paternalism on the part of the state in realms such as education or social
welfare, or to recall how national sentiments that foster solidarity may
transform overnight into nationalist sentiments that foment discrimination and

In other words, the state’s central role has
not eroded away merely for want of sufficient financial resources. The forces
behind this erosion are political and normative, as well. Not for all that,
however, should we conclude that globalization is causing the total evaporation
of the state. We should rather note that we are witnessing the state’s loss of social
and economic initiative, while its security role is maintained. Even the most
fanatical free-market advocates are not yet arguing against the state’s
monopoly over violence.

Critiquing illusions, relinquishing

Today’s European left is post-national: whether
it has chosen the route of government or taken up the banner of civic
engagement, along the way it has given up the illusion of state sovereignty. But
we should beware of tossing the baby out with the bath water: in critiquing our
illusions, we risk losing sight of our ideals. Scrapping the ideal of the
sovereign state means scrapping democratic practice. The goal of forming a
socially and environmentally just society presupposes an established sovereign
government. Scrapping the ideal of the sovereign
state means scrapping democratic practice.

The dramatic situation in which Europe finds
itself today arose from a justifiable critique of national sovereignty. But
when the European Union’s member states transferred certain of their powers to the
Union, the result, in the eyes of their citizens, was not stronger sovereignty
on a greater scale. It ended up being the legal enactment of a loss of
political voice that was already under way.

Europe’s government left ratified a critique of
the illusion of state and nation without energetically providing a new, more
vigorous ideal of European sovereignty. And the activist left has never seen the
construction of a robust sovereign state as a central concern. Anticipating a
phase that Marx envisioned within a classless society, the activist left dreams
of a society with no state and no bureaucracy, which bears a certain
resemblance to the utopias of the nineteenth century.

Can the left rebuild
its platform?

How do we extricate ourselves from the horns of
this dilemma? For the time being, it is impossible to sketch out a complete
agenda. We can nevertheless accurately identify two conditions necessary to redefining
the ends and means of a left-wing policy platform.

The first condition concerns the ends: the left
has no chance of making a difference if it does not agree to engage in the
imaginative thinking that characterizes its activist half. Without any doubt, any
enduring policy platform the left offers must propose a path away from
productivism and consumerism as they exist today. Europe’s social democrats are
no longer accustomed to this kind of imagining; it will require a deep change
in their thinking. They must therefore break with their old habits, a break
that will begin with the task of coming up with a new and viable vision for the
future of culture and education. Happiness cannot be found in growth alone; our
schools must be maintained as political priorities and protected from the
market; freedom of lifestyle is of more pressing concern than full employment; protecting
biodiversity is of urgent importance: those are a few potential watchwords for tomorrow’s
left. The left has no chance of making a difference
if it does not agree to engage in the imaginative thinking that characterizes
its activist half.

The second condition is a question of means: the
government half of the left is correct in asserting that policy cannot be
executed outside of the state. It must be acknowledged, however, that the
current state apparatus is not actually capable of deploying any truly new
forms of policy.

In accepting the neo-liberal institutional
transformations of the 1980s and 1990s, Europe’s government left committed an
historic error. It accepted the dismantling of financial regulation without
batting an eyelash, it voted to do away with the European Central Bank’s
accountability to democratically elected political institutions; failing to
give the European Parliament any real say in the matter, it did not create any democratic
economic governance in the Euro zone.

Europe’s government left would fall even
further into error if it were to believe that the current situation is
irreversible. Despite the prevailing economic orthodoxy, it is possible to
regain control over currency creation and the regulation of public finance. Doing
so would require that all of Europe’s left-wing parties, new (Podemos, Ecolo,
Syriza) and old alike (Europe’s socialist parties), make it their urgent
business to agree on an agenda for rebuilding the European Union on a platform
that includes revising its treaties.

Its first goal would necessarily be to restore
states’ powers to invest independently of private governments. The left’s most
pressing need, therefore, is for a new theory of the state. We must, without ceding
to the old myths of totalitarianism, restore meaning to the ideal of
sovereignty. Without this ideal, there is no future for the European left in
the twenty-first century.

Translation into English by Miranda Richmont

How to cite:
De Munck J.(2016) The dilemma of the European Left, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,5 July.

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