Does the left need a p2p narrative?

An article in Open Democracy notes the paradox of the only relative success of the ‘radical left parties (RLP)’ in post-crisis Europe.

(for a p2p context, see our editorial in al jazeera, with our appeal for a grand coalition of the commons, which could include both RLP’s and social liberals)

First a recap of the stats:

One of the least noticed consequences of this crisis has been the rise of European radical left parties (RLPs), i.e. those to the left of social democracy. The most dramatic example is of course Greece, where Syriza shot from 5 to 26 percent in 2012. But elsewhere in 2012 (e.g. in France and the Netherlands), RLPs have polled strongly. 2011/12 elections in Russia and Ukraine even showed previously moribund communist parties rebounding. However, this ‘rise’ has been profoundly paradoxical. On one hand, votes for parties such as the German Left Party and Icelandic Left-Green Movement have recently hit historic highs. The average RLP vote across Europe in 2000-11 was 8.3 percent, barely behind radical right parties’ average of 9.6 percent. On the other hand, shouldn’t RLPs be performing much better?

The author then points to the lack of ‘replacement narrative’ as a key reason for this underperformance.

LUKE MARCH writes:

“Undoubtedly most debilitating for the contemporary radical left is how to develop a distinct and relevant vision. The dominant narrative remains TINA (‘There is no other way’). European elites still regard fundamentally revising the neo-liberal consensus as impossible and radical left parties as irresponsible populists/extremists. Although it is unclear how the essentially Keynesian solutions proposed by RLPs might work in a world of globalised financial flows, do such objections not need drastically rethinking when neo-liberalism itself has lost so much credibility?

It is not that the radical left has no ideas. It has plenty, including local democracy models developed in Latin America and Iceland. Indeed, the Financial Transaction Tax, now mainstream among European policy makers, was long promulgated by the radical left. However, RLPs themselves still face fundamental credibility issues. No RLP has governed a large EU state. Usually, they are small components of larger coalitions and struggle to demonstrate policy successes. The Cypriot AKEL, the only party currently governing alone, has not turned the tide, adopting the 2011 EU fiscal treaty without complaint.

More problematic is that RLPs lack a meta-narrative to replace communism. Their core messages have rarely resonated as much as anti-immigration or environmentalism do for the right and Greens. Moreover, with many other parties claiming to oppose neo-liberalism since 2008, the danger of red-washing (the appropriation of ‘socialist’ ideas) has been apparent. Newer formations like the Pirates appeal more (perhaps temporarily?) to younger anti-establishment voters who regard RLPs as antiquated.

Clearly, RLPs’ influence on European politics has increased. Many have improved their votes; they are more organisationally and ideologically consolidated than for decades. They are increasingly in government, and are factors to be reckoned with by political elites. They have affected the political climate, and some of their policies have become mainstream.

However, their weaknesses are equally visible. Historical legacy still looms large, evident in weak performances in many European countries, above all in the East. Several parties still face internal divisions, particularly over how to balance national and EU-level priorities. Though decreasingly doctrinaire, they remain one of the most ideological party families. Overall, they struggle with the strategic problem of first successfully defending the Keynesian welfare state before even transforming capitalism, for which there remains no blue-print.

It is likely that RLPs will only increase in influence. The more protracted the crisis, the greater their mobilisation potential. The more that EU/national elites preside over reduced living standards, the less surprising must be populist reactions from the left or the right. However, the principal caveat is that most RLPs remain small and barely the masters of their own environments. Greece remains exceptional, and only major crises will give them dramatic opportunities elsewhere. Accordingly, where RLPs are established they may well grow, but where they are small they are likely to remain small, and where they are tiny, they are unlikely to make major breakthroughs. So the most likely medium-term scenario is no ‘great leap forward’, but a succession of baby steps. But European elites beware: babies eventually learn to run!”

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