[Marxism] Susan Watkins: Oppositions. New Left Review 98, March-April 2016.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 31 13:09:51 MDT 2018

(Concluding paragraphs of an article on Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos, 
Syriza, Melenchon, and Grillo.)

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 

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 (1890s, 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.

The exception, once again, is Italy’s Five Star Movement, which can’t 
properly be categorized as social-democratic—although the policy 
overlaps are remarkable: M5S shares Sanders’s views on immigration, 
Mélenchon’s on the euro, Corbyn’s on Western military intervention. One 
difference is Grillo’s stress on helping small and medium-sized 
manufacturers: although they all say this, he really seems to mean 
it—this is his own social background, after all, and an SME orientation 
also speaks to M5S’s new, ex-Lega supporters. Another lies in the 
distinctive social demographics of the Five Stars’ base: they do well 
among students, the unemployed, unskilled workers, retailers and 
craftsmen, but less well among white-collar workers and badly among 
teachers—sectors that are far more supportive of Sanders, Corbyn, the 
Front de gauche and Podemos. [19] The reasons for that may lie in 
scepticism about the Five Stars’ version of online direct 
democracy—which can seem whimsical and, indeed, undemocratic—or dislike 
of Grillo’s coarseness: encouraging his audiences to shout ‘Vaffanculo!’ 
at images of politicians with criminal convictions, for example. But 
however poor Grillo’s taste, or repellent his jokes, M5S should be 
judged, like any political movement, by its actions. Its voter base, 
despite an influx of Lega Nord and ex-Berlusconi supporters, is still 
predominantly on the left. [20]

Most striking, though, is the scale of support for these oppositions 
among the youth. In all the discussion of the symmetries of left–right 
anti-establishment protest, this major asymmetry is often overlooked. 
Supporters of Trump, UKIP and Le Pen tend to be middle-aged or over; the 
young are breaking left. The discrepancy is dramatic in the US, where 70 
per cent of under-30 Democratic primary voters are supporting Sanders, 
while Trump, like Clinton, does best among 50–64 year olds. Podemos and 
the Five Stars, too, get almost half their support from the young. The 
situation in England and France is more qualified: a substantial section 
of Corbyn’s backers are returning, middle-aged Labour Party members, 
alienated by Brown and Blair. But in Scotland, youthful support for the 
2014 independence campaign transformed it into something like a radical 
social movement. The upshot is that fifteen-year-olds coming into 
political consciousness today find themselves in a very different 
habitat to the teenagers of 2006, with a flourishing undergrowth of 
radical argument and debate: in the US, Jacobin, n+1, Triple Canopy, The 
New Inquiry, Lies, Lana Turner; in France, Mediapart, Pompe à Phynance 
and the other Le Monde diplomatique blogs, Paris-luttes, Rebellyon, 
Révolution Permanente and the Amiens-based Fakir; in Spain, Publico, El 
Diario, CTXT, Diagonal, Directa, El Estado Mental, infoLibre and 
Traficantes de Sueños; in the UK, Novara Media, Mute and Salvage; in 
Italy, Il Fatto Quotidiano, Dynamo, Clash City Workers, Il Manifesto, 
MicroMega—a world of ideas to criticize and dispute. Odds are that the 
left oppositions of Spring 2016 will not be the final word.


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