The decline of the Left in Europe

In all European countries, the Left is being defeated in decisive election contests. And when it is not defeated – as in Italy and Spain – it is winning by only a slight majority or in conditions characterized by some crisis. But even in these conditions, the Left has been so transformed – as in the case of Britain’s New Labour, which has been in power for 10 years – that left-wing «purists» feel such parties have no right to belong to the Left. The simplest explanation for this phenomenon is that Western societies, particularly wealthy ones, are becoming increasingly conservative and strive to consolidate and augment what they have, rather than gambling it away in some doubtful political adventure. So these societies vote for conservative parties and leaders who promise them law and order within the framework of a national, or nationalistic, statism. The newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy is a case in point. But this explanation suffices only in the case of static societies with no ambition. A different explanation attributes Europe’s conservatism to the need to adapt to modern trends such as globalization, which affect balances of power and the very concept and scope of global competitiveness. Europe’s Left now faces a dilemma: should it handle globalization, and all its ramifications, in a way that benefits the social groups it traditionally represents, or should it leave this task to the Right? Usually it opts for the latter. A hostage to deeply ingrained concepts, it refuses to come to grips with the realities of the present day, preferring instead to surrender their handling to the Right, or even the far right. The only exception to this rule has been the New Labour party of Britain’s Tony Blair. In certain cases, the chasm between extreme factions of the Left and reality is so wide as to sever these factions from the world of mainstream politics. When it comes to the welfare state, the traditional Left and Right have always adopted different stances. The Right believes in restricting it, while the Left seeks to nurture it. The example of the UK showed that the ultimate goal is to rationalize the welfare state and incorporate it in a broader program of economic growth. Another area of conflict is law and order. Modern Western societies – with their sprawling cities home to millions of people of different ethnic origins and their violence of epidemic proportions – feel insecure and therefore place law and order at the top of their priorities. The Right has a ready and convincing solution: enforcing law and order through the use of state-sanctioned violence. While the Left is more sensitive about the social repercussions of such methods, it has no convincing solution to offer. As we saw in the recent French elections, the Left failed to penetrate the center ground of the electorate and has now been left without reserves.