The political forces most hostile to European integration are also the only ones to have formulated a common vision for Europe, writes Lea Ypi (LSE). Now is the time to bring the various local social justice campaigns together, and put them at the service of a renewed political project.
As Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Geert Wildeers and other far-right leaders concluded their European electoral campaign in a joint rally in Milan, they hailed the dawn of a ‘peaceful revolution’ in Europe. A recording played Puccini’s aria Nessun Dorma and its refrain of “Vincerò’ (I shall win) filled Milan’s Piazza del Duomo. They did not win, or at least the advances were not as significant as expected. But the results in France, Italy, and also the UK, show that the far right have succeeded in something arguably more lasting: shaping a common nativist vision of a Europe that is neither purely reactive nor purely nostalgic.
In Milan, the far right spoke with one voice. It vowed to defend the true Europe, a Europe of peoples rather than oligarchic neoliberal elites. The electoral campaign was made of references to immigration and Islam as shared threats, the common heritage of Leonardo Da Vinci and Jeanne D’Arc and a vision defending the victims of austerity against the elites in Brussels.
The left may challenge the facts behind these assertions or the good faith behind the promises. Research shows that immigration benefits host societies. Flat taxes of 15% like the one defended by Salvini exacerbate inequality. Religious intolerance has divided the continent well before the rise of multi-culturalism. Patriarchy dominates even in secular family structures. Our shared heritage is as much one of colonial oppression, as it is of collective freedom. Yet pointing out these isolated facts is unlikely to challenge the grand narrative of the right. The left needs its own vision of a pan-European democratic revolution, not just reacting to the threat of its right-wing counterpart.
The secret of the advance of the new right is that it practices what the old left used to preach. It is a new international, with a shared message, a shared vision of social change, shared adversaries and now a shared political platform. It does all that while cultivating local roots and speaking a language that people understand. Instead of classes it speaks of nations, instead of politics it speaks of culture, and instead of capitalists it speaks of immigrants.
Yet it is a paradox that those political forces most hostile to European integration have also been the only ones to formulate a common vision for Europe should not be, and should. It is a paradox that it befell on Salvini to evoke the founding fathers of Europe, from De Gasperi to De Gaulle, and to speak of their betrayed dream of a Europe of peoples.
At no point during the electoral campaign was there a concerted effort of the largest social-democratic parties to occupy a platform together, to organise a common rally, to critically reflect on Europe as a joint project, to involve their activists in deliberation about its future. At no point did they try to take stock of Europe’s crisis of representation, or acknowledge their complicity in its failed neoliberal structure. At no point did they try to understand why the right is proving so effective at filling the gap between representatives and the represented.
Plausible transnational initiatives, like that of DieM25 were on the right track morally, and politically. But without a history of mass political mobilisation and without local roots they were always going to remain isolated from bottom-up traditional forces, and attractive only to a handful intellectuals.
Elections are usually the time when parties reconnect with members and ordinary citizens. Increased turnout shows European citizens are neither indifferent to Europe nor hostile to politics. Yet while the European elections were greeted everywhere as the most important in recent history, domestic issues continued to dominate. The centre-left continued to chase the right, on the critique of multiculturalism, on tougher borders, on tax cuts, and, as predicted, it has lost the ground. In France and Italy, the left has now all but disappeared, in the UK it has become a victim of its ambiguity. Where it survives like Spain and Portugal or where the Greens have made significant advances it is because of clear commitments against austerity and reaping the benefits of the only pan-European protest movement to have occupied the screens: climate strikes.
It is time to bring those isolated social justice campaigns to Europe as a whole, and to put them at the service of a renewed political project. Unions, disenfranchised immigrants, self-employed workers, climate activists, local campaigners are let down by the current economic structure, by an alienating system of representation and by years of technocratic administration and political demobilisation. The centre is now dead, and while the radical left and the radical right wrestle with each other, only one of them has the potential to deliver lasting social justice without the exclusion of vulnerable minorities. Only one of them has the political tradition and democratic resources to resist racism and xenophobia, to part ways with neo-colonialism, to challenge capitalism, to defend the environment. From the left, only the vision of a socialist European federation will offer a radically new alternative the status quo. The far right international is here, when will the left wake up?
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared on LSE British Politics and Policy and on The Independent. Featured image: Pixabay.
Lea Ypi (@lea_ypi) is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship.
If I may suggest a manifesto for the new pan-European social justice campaign, it would be George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier”, which I read the other day. Much of it seems extremely topical. I could quote most of the second half but here are two extracts:
“The only thing for which we can combine is the underlying ideal of Socialism; justice and liberty. But it is hardly strong enough to call this ideal ’underlying’. It is almost completely forgotten. It has been buried beneath layer after layer of doctrinaire priggishness, party squabbles, and half-baked ’progressivism’ until it is like a diamond hidden under a mountain of dung. The job of the Socialist is to get it out again. Justice and liberty! Those are the words that have got to ring like a bugle across the world.”
The comments about Fascism then are also extremely pertinent to the populist right today. I am not one of those who claim that the times we are living in now are just like the 1930s, and I do not think that the European populist right is anything like as bad as the Fascist movement back then. Nevertheless much of the same sentiment which helped the fascists back then is helping the populist right now.
Here another quotation:
“In order to combat Fascism it is necessary to understand it, which involves admitting that it contains some good as well as much evil. In practice, of course, it is merely an infamous tyranny, and its methods of attaining and holding power are such that even its most ardent apologists prefer to talk about something else. But the underlying feeling of Fascism, the feeling that first draws people into the Fascist camp, may be less contemptible. It is not always, as the Saturday Review would lead one to suppose, a squealing terror of the Bolshevik bogey-man. Everyone who has given the movement so much as a glance knows that the rank-and-file Fascist is often quite a well-meaning person–quite genuinely anxious, for instance, to better the lot of the unemployed. But more important than this is the fact that Fascism draws its strength from the good as well as the bad varieties of conservatism. To anyone with a feeling for tradition and for discipline it comes with its appeal ready-made. Probably it is very easy, when you have had a bellyful of the more tactless kind of Socialist propaganda, to see Fascism as the last line defence of all that is good in European civilization. Even the Fascist bully at his symbolic worst, with rubber truncheon in one hand and castor oil bottle in the other, does not necessarily feel himself a bully; more probably he feels like Roland in the pass at Roncevaux, defending Christendom against the barbarian. We have got to admit that if Fascism is everywhere advancing, this is largely the fault of Socialists themselves.”
A pan European democratic revolution is what we need . To begin with, that would involve supporting democratic vote to leave the institutions of the EU. It is not tenable to call for a democratic revolution focused on a technocratic and undemocratic EU. Democracy was fought for an won and exercised in nation states. The EU has developed as a way for politicians to distance decisions from those affected, to place them outside of the contestation of democratic politics.
If the Left had championed the desire of a majority of poorer and working class voters for greater control over their lives at the EU referendum- for greater democracy – then they’d be in a position to lead a discussion about democratic reform. They would be in a position to take up issues around migration with voters based on a common democratic principle. Instead they have spent 3 years associating that desire with the far right here in the UK.
The piece is incredibly pessimistic. In the UK opinion surveys suggest attitudes towards migrants have not changed, in fact may have become more liberal. The Brexit vote meant that in 2017 UKIP were wiped out. In the recent EU elections the Brexit Party brought together people from across the political spectrum – diverse in every sense – around the single issue of democracy. That meant the far right UKIP were again nowhere. Here, the far right is marginal, and there are real opportunities to appeal to democratic, progressive impulse amongst many. If those who still call themselves Left want to pass on that in favour of a cosmopolitanism pitted against democracy, then they will bear some of the responsibility for any right wing resurgence here.
Jim Bitcher. You are exactly correct.
The UK public were sold a series of lies as to what Brexit would mean in 2016. The Brexit Party in the recent EU Elections has reiterated those lies. This was not an expression of democracy, but a demonstration of successful propaganda. Much of what you say shows that you really did not understand what Lea Ypi was trying to say in her article. ‘Democracy was fought and won in national states???’. The 2nd World War was fought together with many states to ensure ‘democracy’ – AND – the EU was set up to maintain that. I think you need to check the history.
A very insightful article, with many points that exactly sum up and focus on what has been happening with the growth of populism, mainly right wing. But populism tends to be relatively short lived and in the case of the EU is unlikely to deliver what it promises. The left wing, more socialist and liberal principles, will re-establish itself as the public see populist promises one by one failing or being changed.