Rebuilding the left and reversing the democratic erosion which we are currently witnessing across Europe and the US are one and the same project.
In a recent article for the Washington Post Sheri Berman worries whether democratic socialists, who are now advancing on the left, believe in democracy. Looking back into twentieth century history, she reminds us that the difference between democratic socialists and social democrats lay in the fact that the former were unwilling to compromise over entering governmental coalitions with bourgeois parties – in that way inadvertently helping along the advent of fascist regimes.
However interesting in terms of a lesson in history, the problem we are facing today is completely different. It is the mainstream left, the Social Democrats, who have for decades now been sacrificing democracy at the altar of the unassailable forces of the global market. In contrast to this, from the democratic socialist perspective today, democratization is the political project of the left. Rebuilding the left and reversing the democratic erosion which we are currently witnessing across Europe and the US are one and the same project.
Another fallacy upheld by many contemporary analyses of democratic erosion is that concern over democracy, and the commitment to protecting it, are shared by mainstream political elites of the Left and Right (see for instance Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, Zielonka 2018). However, in her analysis of two waves of democratic collapse in interwar Europe and in 1970s Latin America, Nancy Bermeo has shown that at the pivotal moment party elites of mainstream Left and Right did not stand together against extremists and populists. In most cases, the breakdown of democracy followed a sequence in which Centre-Right and Right elected governments were replaced by Right-wing dictatorships. In contrast to democratic breakdown, democratic advances have historically been linked with the growth of workers’ movements and socialist parties. At the pivotal moment party elites of mainstream Left and Right did not stand together against extremists and populists.
If this is true, then the decline of the Left and the current democratic malaise are two sides of the same coin. Party competition is re-aligning on the transnational cleavage fuelled by the popular reaction to economic integration – a cleavage which the mainstream left has failed miserably to address. The mainstream left is stuck, the supposed irreversibility of economic globalisation posing the imperative it cannot overcome. In the meantime, new right-wing parties with distinct positions on Europe and immigration are addressing people’s concerns and articulating them into portfolios of nationalism, xenophobia and so forth.
Another common weakness of contemporary analysis is that in explaining the rise of new right parties, it focuses on describing the ‘enemy within’ and adjudicating between economic distress and cultural prejudice as key drivers of the authoritarian-populist vote. Analysing the populist explosion, the resurgence of illiberalism and the death of democracy, analysts evoke the image of the ordinary citizen walking over to the ‘Dark side’: voting for populists, mobilizing around bigoted referendum votes, reading and distributing vitriolic content online. Though the literature offers some variance as to why this happens – ranging from the old-school dislike of the mob to benevolent interpretations that aim to show the rationality of this political behaviour – ordinary people, as Nancy Bermeo has argued, invariably turn out as ‘democracy’s fickle friends’. Populism signals the breakdown in the mutual learning between the mainstream left and ‘ordinary people’.
But if it is true that the future of democracy and the rebuilding the left are one and the same project, then this position is untenable. Instead, we need to assert that populism signals the breakdown in the mutual learning between the mainstream left and ‘ordinary people’. The mainstream left has become distrustful of mass popular engagement with politics. How did this happen to the political force that historically emerged from popular struggles against injustice and relations of domination?
In Kriesi’s et al landmark study of post-1968 social movements, the crucial pivot around which social movements manoeuvred was the configuration of power on the left and the presence or absence of the left in government. In a complete reversal of fortunes, with the left in Europe structurally weak and ideationally disoriented, ours is a time when progressive social movements and civic initiatives represent the anchor for rebuilding left political parties.
The main question therefore becomes – how can organizational experiences and discursive struggles of movements such as the People Against Evictions in Spain, the Rosia Montana movement in Romania or the Right to the City movement in Croatia be harnessed to re-build left political forces?
Crucial lessons about both the future of the Left, and of democracy, are to be learned by analysing European peripheries as spaces in which the contradictions of ‘democratic capitalism’ are particularly pronounced.
Contrary to the convergence thesis that was embedded in the project of European integration, peripheral economies never caught up with the core, and the economic crisis of 2008 made this disparity wider. Economic divisions into creditor and debtor nations acquired their political equivalent between rule makers and rule takers. Since 2008 we have witnessed the emergence of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, as well as mass pro-democracy mobilizations across Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria all the way to Slovenia.
Though economic integration has created winners and losers everywhere in Europe, in Europe’s southern and eastern peripheries economic austerity and the ‘hollowing out’ of politics created stronger pressures on democracy. And yet, despite such circumstances, since 2008 we have witnessed the emergence of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, as well as mass pro-democracy mobilizations across Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria all the way to Slovenia. Submitting these experiences to systematic comparative scrutiny should yield valuable lessons both for democracy and for rebuilding the left.
Perhaps it would be useful to conceptualize mass mobilizations and progressive social movements as episodes of democratic learning which lay the foundations of an organizational and ideational renewal of the left.
Much democratic theory understands democratic learning as the slow process through which populations acquire democratic value orientations that support and stabilize democratic institutions (remember Dahrendorf’s quip about constitutional reform taking 6 months, economic reform 6 years, and cultural change 60 years).
In contrast, I understand democratic learning as happening when people are mobilized into forms of democratic political participation; when they mobilize to oppose environmentally destructive projects or city re-developments which enclose public spaces. Such spatial-environmental struggles set in motion dynamics of incorporation and contestation that Robert Dahl described as fundamental for democratic development. Democratic socialists should place tools for mobilizing populations into civic roles, from the municipal level upwards, at the centre of their strategy.
Drawing on such episodes, democratic socialists should place tools for mobilizing populations into civic roles, from the municipal level upwards, at the centre of their strategy. This is a way to unleash pluridimensional democratic learning, ranging from transformative biographic effects on people engaging in politics, across rebuilding capacity for political mobilization, to a programmatic renewal that should help left forces weave a convincing narrative focused on the future, rather than on lamenting the past.