The 'extreme centre' now presents itself as an antidote to 'populism' by taking to the streets – but that is a symptom of its increasing weakness, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
In trouble: when the ruling class hits the streets
Ruling class narratives of the state of the world are rarely fully coherent since we live in an inherently contradictory system: capitalism. But recent tales of politics in Britain and Europe have been striking for their incoherence.
Take the mainstream explanation of politics in Europe. We have an embattled moderate centre trying to hold things together and take the world forward. But this enlightened grouping is under siege by populist and irrational forces of right and left.
Never mind that the moderate centre got us into the mess in the first place. Let’s overlook that for the sake of the storyline. The latest twist makes the story even more implausible even on its own terms: the embattled centre responds to the rampant dangers of populism – by itself taking to the streets!
The extreme centre tries to mobilise in the UK
Remember the couple of hundred demonstrators protesting against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in late March, with several high-profile Labour MPs joining the protest outside Labour HQ? Remember the tens of thousands on the streets in late June in an elite-driven campaign to win a second Brexit referendum?
These events received more media coverage than, say, protests against Israeli shootings of protesters in Gaza in May or the mass demo to defend the NHS last weekend. This is no accident. The establishment rarely gives mass protest much media coverage, and when it does, this is normally to discredit it.
But now we receive positive, glowing reports of the embattled centre taking to the streets to defend civility against populism. We even get news that millions are being poured to fund a new centrist organisation in the UK drawing from left and right. In other words, centrist mobilisations receive money, infrastructure support and media attention out of all proportion to their real weight.
It is obvious that much of this is directed against Jeremy Corbyn. The extreme centre believe that there is no parliamentary majority for Brexit, but they also notice that Tory rebels are kept in line by fear of a Corbyn led government. So the centrist protests in a sense mimic left mobilisations in order to put pressure on Corbyn, to make him look out of touch, and to undermine him in the long run.
The extreme centre tries to mobilise across Europe
But there is a deeper story here. This is not just happening in Britain. The extreme centre is being forced to return to the streets all over the place.
Last October, in Spain, there was an apparent centrist push to the streets to protest against Catalan independence, in an ostensible attempt to rescue the anti-independence cause from the ruling party’s strong-arm tactics in preventing a referendum. These were fronted by a Nobel winner and a former president of the European parliament.
In late May this year, in Italy, we saw thousands take to the streets after the centrist Democratic Party tried to counter the mobilisation of the right-wing Lega and anti-politics Five Star Movement following the decision of Italian President Sergio Mattarella to stop the appointment of an anti-Euro minister in the new government.
The “extreme centre” has resorted to using not just its preferred institutional channels of influence and control over everyday politics but to trying to go over to "enemy territory" as it sees it - it tries to mimic mass politics. This is a symptom of its increasing loss of hegemony, ie ideological leadership in society. When “project fear” fails, you have to move from producing “fake news” to making “fake demonstrations”.
The age of mass Mmovements and the left
The establishment is losing control, as Chris Nineham puts it in his book. I believe that the attempt of the extreme centre to take to the streets is a new phase of the process. Diffusion of protest, the intensification of its forms and the rise of alternatives to centrist neoliberalism has now seen the centre try to respond - implausibly - with its own street mobilisations.
For a long time, this did not appear necessary. That is despite the fact that we lived in a time of mass movements. Since the anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, through the anti-war movements peaking in 2003, to the anti-austerity marches of recent years, hitting the streets has in fact been and remains a defining feature of left politics.
In an interview with David Jamieson in 2012, John Rees argued that ‘economic and imperial crisis, democratic deficit and weak union and reformist organisation – has produced the mass movement as the characteristic response of those that want to fight the system’.
Put crudely, this means that the lack of electoral and union challenges to neoliberalism since the end of the Cold War produced mass street protest as a form of mass self-organisation involving millions of working class people across the world. These mobilisations have often been deep and inspiring.
But they have had limits. The overall weakness of the left in most of the world has continued to negatively affect its ability to give political direction to the mass movements. Even at their height, they appear not to go beyond the 'February' or democratic phase of revolution. Often, even that is not achieved in today’s polarised world. For instance, the Arab revolutions fell to civil wars, counter-revolution and imperialist intervention in the Middle East.
Elsewhere, the political weakness of the mass movements has led to support for broadly left candidates in elections. This has sometimes led to the election of governments with less or more radical left presence. Sometimes, these have had real success in reversing some neo-liberal policies, like in some parts of Latin America.
But they have not offered general progress and they have had a dismal record in Europe. From Rifondazione Comunista’s participation in government in 2006 in Italy to Syriza’s leadership of government in Greece since 2015, left governmentalism has in fact led to the continuation of the politics of the extreme centre: neo-liberalism.
Mass mobilisation between hope and despair
Where the left has failed to fight for a truly radical alternative, false right wing alternatives are put on offer. These have also been increasingly part of street mobilising. From moral panics related to the future of the family in Eastern Europe, with attacks on Gay Pride marches, to the anti-immigrant mobilisations in Western, Central and Southern Europe, we have seen the right try to counter the left in the 2000s and 2010s.
This has also been reflected in the polarisation of electoral politics in recent years. For every Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, there has also been Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán or Sebastian Kurz. In general, there has been a slight swing rightwards electorally, with the radical left holding up, and the extreme centre falling behind. That is indeed why we have seen it desperately trying to recover its positions by turning to the streets – or accommodating to the extreme right.
And that should be a warning to us on the left. Where the politics of hope fails, the politics of despair will gain the upper hand. They have not yet prevailed, however. Despite holding power or participating in power, the right has nowhere in North America or Europe succeeded in shutting down elections, banning civil society and working class organisation, or mobilising its base to effect mass violence against its opponents.
Moreover, its apparent breakthroughs have often inspired major protests against them. The scale of women’s protests and anti-racist mobilisations in the United States since the election of Donald Trump has been one impressive example. This appears also to be helping to regenerate the spirit of working class resistance in the industrial sphere too, as we saw with the rank-and-file teacher strikes in spring this year. More globally, it has helped inspire the global women’s strike on 8 March.
The left and the mass movements
It is important not to underestimate the importance of the left to such organising. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci put it, “In the ‘most spontaneous’ movement, it is simply the case that the elements of ‘conscious leadership’ cannot be checked, have left no reliable document”. Organising protests requires a scaffolding to be put in place beforehand and during protests: getting together to discuss, putting out leaflets or messages in traditional and new media, making the argument…
And it is clear that the left has been organising in the US. This has led to greater confidence and a rise in left wing organisation. Notice Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected win in the Democratic primaries against Joe Crowley just a few days ago. He was a long-time Representative and potential contender for speaker of the House, but he lost out to a 28-old self-described socialist. Moreover, the left-wing Democratic Socialists of America now claim over 40,000 members.
The picture is similar elsewhere. In France, for example, the main opposition to Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal drive has come from the left, and not from Marine Le Pen and the right. This has important implications for the future shape of French and European politics. It helps to show that the real alternative to neoliberalism comes from the left, and not the right.
Time is about to accelerate and the left needs to move up a gear
Nonetheless, it is clear that we are far from a resolution. Mass anger is palpable as the ‘Great Recession’ continues to bite and protests are still erupting across the world, but often with no one force leading.
An example close to home is the mass protest for Scottish independence in Glasgow in May, which seemingly had no major backing from large organisations, saw no major presence by the political parties like the SNP and did not even have a large social media build-up.
This is proof that, as the establishment rots from within, it is all still to play for. And the establishment has much cause to worry as the ground from beneath its feet continues to shift. While we see some return to economic growth in the world, living standards are stagnant and corporate debt levels remain at an all-time high, suggesting further economic crisis is likely.
We have in fact not seen a return to pre-crisis peak of globalisation – but rather the return of protectionism in the US, EU and China. This means that the world as a whole is becoming dangerously polarised and potentially unstable. Great Power competition is ever more in the open. Proxy wars between the Great Powers and various regional powers are heating up.
It is in this context that the ‘extreme centre’ has moved on to the streets, in an attempt at rescuing the old neoliberal globalisation model from their protectionist foes in the ruling class, but also against the movements from below that they increasingly cannot keep under control or on a leash. Yet, as no side looks like it is decisively able to win, the struggle is prolonged, which heightens the risks and possibilities for all actors.
And this is not happening in a vacuum. The intensity of the fight between neoliberal globalisers and authoritarian protectionists in North America and Europe is heightened by their fear of losing their pre-eminence in the world to the rising Asian powers around China. The latter in turn do not wish to see their chance slip. As they all tighten the belt of their respective populations in an attempt to win out, and heighten inter-imperialist rivalry abroad, the pressure from below is certain to build.
Whereas the world seemed more stable in the 1990s and 2000s, with global capitalism triumphant, time seemed to slow down and struggles appeared protracted and indecisive. The world in the 2010s has become faster as tectonic shifts lead to earthquakes like wars and revolutions. The “extreme centre” moving on to the streets in the advanced capitalist countries is a warning of further major earthquakes to come. There is nothing preordained about the outcome of this struggle – what we do now matters for the world of tomorrow.
Thanks to Martin Hall for comments on this article.
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