Beyond the immediate public health crisis, there looms the worst recession in Europe since the dawn of the industrial age, the worst recession in Europe since the dawn of the industrial age.
We face, in all likelihood, the morphosis of neoliberalism into something darker, more authoritarian and nationalistically charged. But we also possess a once-in-a-generation opportunity for widespread radical change: something that the elites are well aware of. It is more urgent than ever that working people organise to defend and advance their interests against the tyranny of the billionaire class.
The coronavirus recession will be long and protracted, and will exacerbate the shift from neoliberalism towards corporate state capitalism.
Grace Blakely observes that a coming over-saturation of the market will lead to the rise of a new oligarchy who will wield near-monopolistic power. At a time when a wave of bankruptcies is coming to claim the small businesses of Europe, the largest corporations are being propelled to new heights of supremacy, with Jeff Bezos on course to become the world’s first trillionaire. This would make him wealthier than the GDP of any economy on earth bar thirteen and give Amazon the sort of power you’d associate with the East India Company, a nineteenth-century corporation that operated as a state unto itself.
This will not only bring a whole new meaning to ‘too big to fail’, but that disturbing phrase, ‘socialism for the rich’, will be institutionalised. If left unchallenged, this will transform the managed democracies of Europe into plutocratic tyrannies where the economy will be planned by behemothic firms and abetted in their efforts by mere figureheads purporting to lead Europe’s governments. With democracy nullified, billionaire overlords will usher in an era of corporate despotism.
The European left are not currently in a position to resist this. The past decade has seen its electoral wing fall prey to Pasokification, the phenomenon named after the Social Democratic Party of Greece which saw its vote share collapse from 43.9% in 2009 to 4.6% in 2015. Similar events occurred in France, Germany, Britain and Holland. One of the last European bastions of leftist success is in Spain, where a coalition of Unidas Podemos and PSOE keeps the dwindling flame of electoral socialism alive. All of this happened in the context of forty-year decline in trade union membership across most of the continent, particularly in the private sector.
With unprecedented state intervention in the economy and a new public appreciation of health, care and other essential workers, it would seem to many that the political zeitgeist is now shifting in the left’s favour. But 2008 is proof of what happens when the left assumes that a crisis will afford self-evident legitimacy to its arguments: the establishment seized the narrative and in the succeeding decade, the poorest were made to pay for the failings of the rich.
We should recognise that the political agenda is never granted to you by fortune. We must seize it for ourselves.
Creative solutions are required going forward. Luckily, the left has grown in both size and strength and now boasts more thinkers, activists and party members than it had ten years ago. We must use those talents to think our way forward.
Firstly, we must champion the cause of democracy in an increasingly undemocratic world: not just in parliamentary elections, but in our workplaces, organisations and communities. In his recent article for Jacobin, Ben Burgis suggests that a key step away from capitalism and towards ‘market socialism’ would be to transform all private companies into cooperatives: this would eliminate the top-down, hierarchical structure of businesses and introduce genuine democracy into the workplace. The capitalist class would be abolished, but in such a way that the world would remain comfortably familiar to non-socialists. We must also strive to democratise our own institutions, such as Trade Unions and political parties, where more power needs to be devolved to members.
Secondly, we need real unity on the left. Initiatives like Progressive International have been criticised for a dictatorial approach to this issue, but the consequences of disunity are too severe to entertain. Last year in Britain, Extinction Rebellion succeeded in bringing parts of London to a complete standstill and propelled climate issues to the top of the agenda, but it’s claim to be ‘beyond politics’ meant it failed to endorse Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in what it rightly called a ‘climate election’. By failing to lift a finger to prevent the landslide victory of the Conservatives, Extinction Rebellion failed to participate in the battle to rid Britain of an anti-environmental government. We don’t have any time left to repeat these mistakes. The green movement, the unions, and other left affiliates must make common cause and recognise that you cannot be an environmentalist without being an anti-capitalist, and vice versa.
Thirdly, we need to impress on people who usually vote for left parties the importance of direct action. Over-reliance on electoralism may be a reflection of a ‘detached spectatorialism’ observed by Mark Fisher: we know in theory that merely electing socialist governments won’t be enough to change society, but many still hesitate to actively engage, falling prey to the hopelessness and fear of inevitability that neoliberalism seeks to indoctrinate in us. That isn’t to say one should not bother voting: the extent to which elites actively try to disenfranchise groups demonstrates the importance of electoral participation. But we shouldn’t just encourage people to vote: we should encourage them to get out and engage with politics in their countries and communities, whether through advocating for a cause, participating in community support groups, or (once social distancing measures permit it) protest.
This connects to the fourth point: we need to energise and bolster the Trade Union movement. There is a direct link between falling trade union membership and rising inequality in society. The need to redress this imbalance is now more essential than ever. Despite low membership, particularly in the private sector, Unions have won many important battles in the last few years, particularly in France against the brutal neoliberal regime of Macron, and recently in Britain, where Unions prevented the government from cutting the support provided in its Job Retention Scheme from 80% of pre-furlough wages to 60%.
Now that Boris Johnson’s government seeks to restore profit to the economy by exposing working class people to coronavirus, Unions may well become the only things standing between vulnerable workers and what Engels called ‘social murder’. But Unions shouldn’t just fight for our lives, they should fight for our freedoms too: James McAsh has written that the right to work from home for those who can should not be suspended when lockdown ends, for it represents a shift in the power dynamic at work and may prove essential in revitalising local communities.
Lastly, the Left must become better communicators. We seem to have lost touch with many sections of the working class, and it is essential that the more middle and upper-class voices on the left yield ground and listen to those communities. The left’s institutions cannot be reliant on middle and upper-class people who can afford to volunteer for long periods without paid work. We should also support the blossoming alternative media, with outlets like Tribune, Double Down News, Novara, and Jacobin providing a left-wing balance to the propagandistic mainstream media. The Progressive International’s WIRE platform is a start, which translates stories, essays, and statements from progressive publications all over the world. Those who can afford it should financially support these outlets, and those who cannot should spread the word to friends and family.
We must unite, organise, and win: for ourselves, for the planet, and for our children.
If our tools against the elites in the coming battle consist merely of memes and tweeting in the echo-chamber of social media, then we can expect the next decade and beyond to be even bleaker than the last. Already, the establishment are beginning to forge the narrative of the next ten years and use this crisis to their advantage. There are mutterings of a return to austerity, and with fascism on the rise across the western world, leaders will likely intensify attacks on migrants and ethnic minorities.
If Rosa Luxemburg was correct to say that the future would either be an advance towards socialism or a retreat into barbarism, then the establishments have routinely proven that they will always opt for the latter. The point needs to be hammered home that coronavirus merely exposed what was already an unworkable socio-economic model. In the last decade, the western European economies have demonstrated the same socio-economic structural weakness and stagnation that we saw in the Soviet Bloc economies of Eastern Europe in the 1980s. An ageing population, a global collapse in GDP and the sixth mass extinction all force us to find an alternative way of living. In 2008, the left failed to win the battle for the post-crash world. It cannot afford to lose again.
In Greece, MeRA25 — DIEM25’s Electoral Wing in Greece — succeeded in the 2019 Greek general election, entering parliament with 9 MPs. This is a sign of hope for the left. DiEM25 is now working on establishing Electoral Wings across Europe in order to fight the Establishment and the Nationalist International.
For more information on left unity, see the Progressive International initiative — co-founded by DIEM25 and the Sanders Institute. And for readers in the United Kingdom, visit the T.U.C website to join a Trade Union today.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect DiEM25’s official policies or positions.
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