Crisis of politics or crisis of the left?

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How the mediatisation of politics challenges the left in Europe

“A spectre is haunting Europe- the spectre of communism”. A century and a half after Marx wrote this sentence it is equally true, if we substitute the word communism with populism. Twenty years later the end of real socialism the euphoria for the end of history has given away for good, what is left is a sense of dismay toward the democratic practices.


Certainly at the level of the European institutions this is, to a certain extent, due to the imposition of a political paradigm -the große koalition- the German grand coalition, made tangible by the virtually permanent alliance between the European Popular Party (EPP) and the European Socialist Party (ESP). A system that does not allow a real political alternative. Indeed, Berlin in this is committing the same mistake both at the political and at the economic level: thinking that if a receipt worked in the Deutschland, then it shall be applicable everywhere else.


However, it is not just at the European level that at the average citizen is shown a very narrow range of choice, even at the national level every major party is resembling each other, moving toward the centre in order to gain the median electors and the undecideds. This is nothing but the outcome of a process started in the ‘80s.


Professionalization, Americanization, Modernization. This process has got many definitions. What links all these terms is the idea that, since the time when national broadcasting has been liberalized, moving from the public monopoly to commercial competition, politics has begun to transform.


Such transformation meant the adoption of media logics in the political processes, especially in the electoral campaigns. Experts of communication, public relations, marketing and branding all poured in, substituting the traditional structure of the mass party. The new party became a catch-all one, in which the political leaders constructed a direct relationship with the electorate through the mass media.


At any rate, such change was by no means neutral. In fact, it meant a transition from labour-intensive to capital-intensive electoral campaign. What was the purpose of a band of activists going door to door if your message could effectively get in every house by the medium of television? In short, the organized way through which the labour had managed to counterweight the hyper power of the capital had suddenly vanished.


Americanization suggests that countries from all over the world are acquiring, also for their inner reasons, practices started in the United States. One of this is the fact that commercial broadcasting media pretend to be objective, although they are market-driven undertakings, hence intrinsically of liberal ideology.


If we look at the US political system, we find that the two dominant parties correspond to what in Europe would be deemed as the right and the centre-right. Since the political practices of the Old Continent increasingly resemble the one in Washington Europe should interrogate herself if that is actually the direction toward which she wants to move.


Put it differently, where is the place of the European left in all this? How can the left effectively compete with conservative parties without distorting or even losing its identity? So far just two European leaders have attempted to reformulate the message of the left in a way that proved appealing for the electors.


On the one hand, the election of Tony Blair in 1997 put an end to 18 years of Conservative governments and started the longest premiership for the history of the Labour Party. In fact, the party was subject to a complete renewal, including for the name, in order to demark the discontinuity with the past.


New Labour was one of the most remarkable branding operations of all times. It gave the party the fresh air it needed to become a daring competitor for the government. However, in doing so, it had to win over business.


Unfortunately, Tony Blair’s legacy, for all its good, has been sullied by the War in Iraq. The Labour has never seemed farther from winning the Parliamentary elections than now. The brand has been bruised whereas Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the object of an overwhelmingly negative media coverage (1).


On the other hand, Matteo Renzi in Italy is employing effective communication techniques. As a result, in 2014 the Italian Partito Democratico became the biggest contributor for the ESP parliamentary group. Consequently, many international observers noticed that Renzi is assuming the lead of the anti-austerity movement in Brussels, receiving Washington’s backing in this.


It shall be said that Renzi is enjoying a peculiar political conjuncture at home, for which the lumbering figure of former prime-minister Silvio Berlusconi is steadily fading away, leaving behind a gap to fulfil in the centre-right political spectrum. Moreover, Renzi’s performances do not lack backfires, as was the case of the ironies prompted by the “slides” he supposedly copied from Barack Obama.


Nowadays, Renzi’s premiership appears endangered by the outcome of the Constitutional referendum that is taking place next December and to which he linked his political future. Someone correctly noticed that personalizing the outcome of the referendum corresponds perfectly to Renzi’s style. Nevertheless, personalization is implicit to the logic of mediatised politics, thus it might also be that he simply had no choice.


Significantly, Renzi’s constitutional reform is boycotted by the left of his own party for which it could have been done better, therefore acting as a conservative force toward a dysfunctional system. Just like in France during the Parliamentary discussion of la loi travail, the left of the left (la gauche de la gauche) mobilized to undermine the government it is supposed to support, unconcerned of pushing the country in the hands of the right or of the populists alike.


It follows that the European left is passing through a deep identity crisis. Its more extremist part often takes an uncompromising stand, weakening the government even when it should represent the lesser evil and so doing frustrating any reformist attempt. At the same time the government-left has to find an uneasy balance between remaining into power and enforcing a political agenda that represents its values.


What is the future of the left then? What is certain is that it has never been so uncertain. The left needs to reshape its role and identity according to the new circumstances, namely the use of marketing techniques that entered politics to stay and a global capitalism that refuses any regulation or negotiation.


If the left will fail to do so it means that it will leave the electorate in general, and the losers of globalization in particular, without a clear alternative, making the whole democratic process less credible. Thus, it should not surprise us if the people will decide to turn toward xenophobia and extreme-right populism. As indeed many are already doing.


(1) An interesting research published on July 2016 by professor Bart Commaerts about this is worth a reading:

Luca Bertuzzi