A few weeks ago, more than 180 million people across 43 countries watched the Eurovision song contest, by far the most banal product of kitsch entertainment in an age of mass consumerism and illusionary empowerment. The winner, rather unsurprisingly, was a bearded Austrian drag queen. Perhaps even less surprising was the fact that the head of the Austrian government, Chancellor Werner Faymann, praised the bearded drag queen as a symbol for “tolerance.” This was indeed the most fitting comment any hypocritical European politician could possibly make at a time when the European Union (EU) is plagued by mass unemployment, widespread poverty, anti-immigrant sentiment and growing discontent as the policies it pursues benefit the rich and strong member states while they decimate the middle class and devastate the poor across the EU and subject the weak member states to a condition of perpetual dependency.
Later in May, European parliament elections were held, a farce in many ways of almost equal proportions to the Eurovision song contest. While the power of the European parliament has grown somewhat in recent years, power is concentrated mainly in institutions – the European Commission, the European Council, the European Central Bank – whose members are not elected by the citizens of Europe. Moreover, actual power at the European level, and especially within the monetary union, is exercised largely by the dominant member states, mainly by Germany.
The structure of the political economy of the euro system, for example, is an outcome of the interplay between major vested interests (banking, corporate and state interests), with the neoliberal ideology defining the nature of economic integration at the heart of the European project. The public is never involved at any stage in the decision-making process (perhaps Europe’s political elite believes that the democratic gap is filled with the participation of the public in a televote system for choosing the winner of the European song contest!) and does not seem to represent the general interest. In essence, we are speaking of an economic system designed to cater to the needs of finance capital, big business and the rich and a form of governance that is totally unaccountable. Without a doubt, the original vision of a unified social Europe is a thing of the past, and what has emerged in its place is a neoliberal-oligarchic EU regime, practicing the economics of social disaster and the pillage of public wealth in the shape of a “new Rome.”(1)
Just to underscore the point, when democratically elected national leaders sought to resist the plans of the European political elite for the troubled Eurozone economies, the EU chiefs did not hesitate to force them out of office. It happened in the cases of Greece and Italy, with Papandreou and Berlusconi, respectively. The existence of an “EU plot” to remove unaccommodating national leaders from office during the height of the Eurozone crisis is confirmed by former US Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, in his recently released book Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises. He writes: “At one point that fall , a few European officials approached us with a scheme to try to force Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi out of power; they wanted us to refuse to support IMF loans to Italy until he was gone.” And he goes on: “We told the President about this surprising invitation, but as helpful as it would have been to have better leadership in Europe, we couldn’t get involved in a scheme like that . . . We can’t have his blood on our hands.”
While the European public may not be sufficiently informed about how the EU operates, it does seem to be aware of the fact that the only thing that the bureaucrats in Brussels do not care about is the common good. Indeed, citizens are growing quite indignant about the EU, turning their back on legitimization gestures toward the “New Rome,” such as voting in the European parliamentary elections (turnout was less than 50 percent in European elections in 2014), or shifting their support increasingly toward euroskeptic political parties, the great majority of which come from the far right.
The stunning victory of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France that came in first with 25 percent of the vote – when it had won less than 6.5 percent in the last European elections – is quite indicative of the general political and social trends in Europe today. The parties of the far right scored quite well in Europe’s parliamentary elections: over 26 percent in Denmark, over 20 percent in the UK and Austria, 15 percent in Hungary, 13 percent in Finland – while, in Greece, an outright criminal, murderous organization known as “Golden Dawn” pulled 9.4 percent of the vote.
What all these parties have in common – with the exception of “Golden Dawn” in Greece, which seems to stand apart from parties of the far right by virtue of its outright neo-Nazi ideological makeup – is their opposition to the current EU regime, which they blame directly for the loss of national sovereignty, the high levels of unemployment, the corrosion of traditional beliefs and values and the massive flows of immigrants. They all employ anti-EU rhetoric, but a number of them claim that what they want to see is a more efficient and democratic Europe. Typical in this regard is the recent comment made by Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) when he said, “I don’t want Britain to leave the EU. I want Europe to leave the EU.”(2) Of course, how a more democratic Europe fits into the overall ideological scheme of the parties of the far right, which preach hate towards immigrants, gays, gypsies and communists, is apparently a matter of little concern to their leaders or supporters.
In terms of economics, the far right has been traditionally a staunch defender of state capitalism and big business, but makes overall overtures towards the working class and the petty bourgeoisie with redistributive economic policies and emphasis on social programs. Marine Le Pen’s National Front economic agenda is still based around the same principles, making the left’s task of appealing to those segments of the population increasingly more difficult, especially since the vision of a socialist run economy has suffered a major setback since the collapse of Soviet socialism from which it has yet to recover.
The left also gained ground in the European elections, but nothing comes close to the smashing performance of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) in Greece, which came in first with over 26 percent. In Greece, after six years of a deep economic depression and four years in the grips of the so-called troika – made up of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank – that has imposed an extremely brutal austerity program in exchange for loans when the country faced a sovereign default back in early 2010, the conditions were simply ripe for the rise of Syriza into Greece’s main opposition and now leading party. The two main political parties of Greece, the conservatives and the socialists, were not only responsible for the country’s catastrophic slide toward multiple cliffs (an unsustainablelong-termfiscal path, a moribund political culture, a vicious cycle of inequality, dysfunctional organizations and social anomie), but totally capitulated to the troika’s demands and became executioners of a strategic economic plan that imposed debt peonage, made a mockery of contemporary democracy and caused the standards of living and poverty to revert back to levels of the 1960s when Greece was an underdeveloped and politically totally dependent country to the Western powers.
Still, while the future of the left in Greece appears to be rather promising, there are reasons for caution and concern for and greater engagement from all progressives and radicals who hope to see the end of the austerity-induced depression in Greece, the end of dependency on troika funding and the emergence of a new economic paradigm where sustainable development, equity and social protection will be the defining features. First, the meteoric rise of Syriza may represent in reality a classic case of electoral realignment based on the impact of short-term issues rather than ideological convictions and the cumulative impact of the transformative power of a party’s policy agenda and overall political vision. Indeed, as many friends and foes of Syriza alike have pointed out, the party leadership has not managed so far to advance an integrated and convincing economic and social agenda, lacks a transformative political culture perspective and is rather ambiguous when it comes to issues of national interest and national strategy, including how to navigate the political waters in the EU without losing its soul or forcing Greece out of the Eurozone without having an alternative plan, thus causing in the end a new national disaster.
To be sure, none of these tasks are easy to accomplish, yet they remain extremely important in Syriza’s desire to consolidate the electoral realignment and to strengthen and widen the ideological base of the party, which, realistically speaking, probably does not involve more than 10 percent of the population. After all, Syriza was a fringe party until only a few years ago, securing barely 5 percent of the popular vote, hence it would be stretching the limits of political imagination to think that the huge increase in electoral support has come from people who have suddenly embraced the vision of anti-capitalism and radical socialism that Syriza represents as a political organization.
Even so, Syriza remains the only viable political alternative in Greece, and, without doubt, an authentic force in the political struggle to put Europe back on the right track, i.e., to shift the EU away from its current neoliberal course and toward the direction of a social Europe, with promising prospects for the emergence eventually of a form of governance and an economic structure based on democratic socialism. In this context, there is no doubt that the EU chiefs (along with the Greek plutocracy and the ideological state apparatuses) will do all they can in the months ahead to block Syriza from winning the next national elections and forming a government. Its success could have a domino effect in other troubled economies of the Eurozone.
In the European parliament, Syriza should also be ready to encounter the opposition of the far right, which, when push comes to shove, may very well compromise with the current EU dictates as it is intrinsically tied to big business interests and considers the left as its natural enemy.
Moreover, it is also not clear whether the far right parties will form a political alliance amongst themselves in the new European parliament. It is not certain at all that UKIP, or even the Finns Party, will collaborate with Marine Le Pen’s National Front. In short, it is highly unlikely that the parties of the far right will pose a systemic threat to the status quo in the EU.
What seems to be happening in Europe today is that the far right is simply taking advantage of the growing bitterness and resentment all across the continent towards the “New Rome” and citizens’ lost faith in the ability or willingness of mainstream political parties to secure a better tomorrow for themselves and their children, let alone protecting the common good.
Of course, the key question here is why is it mainly the far right, and not the left, attracting voters dismayed with the status quo. This is by no means an easy question to answer. However, until the latter happens, the odds are that “New Rome” will continue with business as usual.
1. See C. J. Polychroniou, “The New Rome: The EU and the Pillage of the Indebted Countries.” Policy Note 2013/5. Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: The Levy Economics Institute. May 2013. http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/pn_13_5.pdf
2. Cited in The Economist, “European Elections: The Euroskeptic Union,” May 26, 2014. http://www.economist.com/blogs/charlemagne/2014/05/european-elections-0