News & Politics

How Politics Across the U.S. and Europe Are Shifting Away From the Center

Donald Trump is an abomination, but across the Atlantic, he will find his equals.

Jeremy Corbyn
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

In The Extreme Center: A Warning, the left intellectual Tariq Ali suggests, “A dictatorship of capital…has reduced political parties to the status of the living dead.” The “indistinguishable political elite” has brought political parties in the West to the heel – they now bark to the same tune: low taxes on the rich, few regulations on business, less social welfare programs for the indigent, more police and war.

The two American parties are distinguished by their temperament; the Republican more macho in its disposition. They are also divided on some issues of great importance, namely attitude toward social minorities and women’s rights. But on the main business items (taxes, regulations, balanced budgets, banks, welfare, police), they are impossible to tell apart. Cutting welfare and increasing policing harshly hits the very social minorities and women that the Democrats claim to defend.

Much the same kind of harmony exists between the Labour and Conservative parties in the UK, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Germany and the Socialists and Union for a Popular Movement in France. The figures associated with the emergence of the Extreme Center (or the Third Way) are Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Jacques Chirac.

Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, this Extreme Center imagined that political differences had largely ended – what remained were differences in policy and strategy. Technocrats rushed into the void, pushing the view that certain things need no longer be debated and only implemented. Chief of the central banks – such as Alan Greenspan of the US Federal Reserve – drew the lines inside which governments had to operate.

Democratic opinion mattered less and less, as the will of the bankers mattered more and more. Ratings agencies, with their own close ties to business elites, set the dial for governmental policy. If a government tried to get out of the lines set by the bankers, the ratings agencies would threaten to downgrade them and make the cost of borrowing from banks higher. This was enough to constrain the options for governments.

Meanwhile, the rich went on strike. They refused to pay taxes toward the common good. Political pressure from the central banks, the ratings agencies and the moneyed elite forced governments to pass versions of the balanced budget amendment. With less revenue coming in, governments were forced to cut expenditure. This meant that they could no longer manage social spending and job creation mechanisms. To balance their books, the governments began to sell off vital areas of social life – including the delivery of water and education – to private hands. Privatization was a means to balance the budget and retain a good credit rating. The social value of government declined.

Media, controlled and funded by the moneyed rich, attacked the idea of “government” and built a political consensus for privatization. At the same time, the media stoked fears of crime and terrorism – building unanimity for what limited state funds remained to be spent on the police and military. There was little concern amongst the ratings agencies and the bankers for this unproductive investment. With no agenda to create jobs in the West, the governments adopted the strategy of sending its poor into the military or to prison.

The crazy wars and financial crises inaugurated in the 2000s put an end to the arrogance of the Extreme Center. It had created a world it could not control. There was no solution to the global jobs crisis, and none whatsoever to the chaos produced by Bush’s wars. Elites continued to smile at Davos, but their tone was different. They don’t know diffidence, but there is hesitancy in their manner. Just before Davos, the IMF released a warning of slowdown in growth, with geopolitical tensions, an appreciation of the dollar, and uncertainty in China. An International Labour Organisation report showed that only a quarter of the world’s workforce have permanent jobs. Tensions in the world economy, a bleak jobs scenario, and only fluff from the Extreme Center as solutions—this is the tenor of our times. It suggests that the era of the Extreme Center is now over.

What comes after? Absolute polarity is the current dynamic, with an Extreme Right in attendance at one end and the emergence of a Left at the other. It is Donald Trump here and Bernie Sanders there. Donald Trump is an abomination, but he is not alone. Across the Atlantic, he will find his equals – Front Nationale’s Marie Le Pen (France), Fidesz’s Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Law and Justice’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski (Poland), Venstre’s Lars Løkke Rasmussen (Denmark), Freedom Party’s Heinz-Christian Strache (Austria), VMRO-DPMNE’s Nikola Gruevski (Macedonia). This is a short list. What distinguishes them is that they share a common view of governance: a highly racist understanding of society is coupled with a policy slate to use government power to divert social benefits to the privileged race. In other words, a strong state with generous social benefits will provide for those whom the party deems to be the appropriate natural citizens. Foreigners are not welcome. The financial sector must be tethered to the national good. Everyone must get social benefits.

What defines the Extreme Right in other words is a combination of harsh racism with paternal delivery of social goods. Trump’s discombobulated rhetoric is actually identical to what Fidesz, Law and Justice, VMRO have put into place now that they are in government. Harsh language against the financial sector is common here, including the view that banks need to be made into national entities and not globalized ventures. The bottom line must stop at the border. No wonder then that these parties attract a base amongst the working-class that is able to claim to be natural citizens: they this form of racist benevolence is attractive to them. It is better than the cold winter of austerity.

The Extreme Right is not alone in the new landscape. In the four PIGS states (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) have emerged formations that – in different ways – have struggled to create a left response to the crisis and the demise of the Extreme Center. The most important example here is Greece, where the Left emerged like a meteor – as Syriza – but then found itself against the brick wall of the rules created by the Extreme Center. It could not break through. Italy’s Democratic Party, led by Matteo Renzi, the charismatic former mayor of Florence, is now in power. Renzi’s style and agenda resembles that of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, although the latter seemed more radical because of the kind of people to the left in his party (such as Yanis Varoufakis). But both are not willing to make a complete break with the consensus of the Extreme Center – Tsipras unwilling to challenge the European troika and Renzi comfortable with breaking protections for workers with his Jobs Act. Untried in the halls of power are Spain’s Podemos and United Left – both of whom are in the midst of negotiations to form the next government. In nearby Portugal, the Left Bloc has entered an alliance with the Socialist Party, the Communist-Green Alliance and the Socialists to form the government. Both the Spanish and the Portuguese Left will now have to test the waters. Could they be bolder than their compatriots from Italy and Greece?

In the Anglophone world, the victory of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party and the remarkable ascent of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party’s primaries challenge the Extreme Center in the world of Clinton and Blair. Corbyn and Sanders have established themselves as popular leaders of the anti-austerity bloc. Fear-mongering is the language of Money. It wants to return power to the Extreme Center, whether in the hands of Hillary Clinton in the United States or Andy Burnham-Yvette Cooper-Liz Kendall in Britain. But Corbyn is not alone. To his left in the British parliament is the Scottish National Party, which swept Scotland in the last parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom. Its agenda is broadly socialist – close to the kind of agenda of Podemos and the Left Bloc, but with the advantage of nationalist Scottish capital in its corner.

The Extreme Center is dying. At its ends emerges a politics of anti-austerity. What divides the Right and the Left is their attitude to society, whether to pursue inclusive and diverse social worlds or not. This is a fundamental difference. There is nothing shared between Trump and Sanders or Golden Dawn’s Ilias Kasidiaris and Syriza’s Tspiras. They live on different planets, and yet both have rejected the Extreme Center’s politics of austerity. As the old communist Antonio Gramsci put it so plainly in another era, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” One of them is named Trump.

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and the forthcoming The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.