Historian Perry Anderson is one of the luminaries of the so-called Western Marxists, that is, Marxist theoreticians who were based in Western and Central Europe, rather than the Soviet Union. He’s now a professor of history and sociology at UCLA. He used to be the editor of the New Left Review. This pedigree, I should think, would be sufficient for most on the traditional right to consider calling in an exorcist.
But I’m going to ask you to read him anyway. Just one essay, actually. It’s a piece about the EU in Le Monde Diplomatique, titled “Why the System Will Still Win,” in which he predicts that the European center will hold and the EU will survive. This is an outcome that as a revolutionary he deplores, of course.
What struck me reading it was how similar his arguments against the EU, and against Europe’s center-right and center-left parties and coalitions, are to those I’ve heard of late from the American right — another arena where many (not all) seem devoutly to hope “the system” will lose, too.
In some places, he uses a different vocabulary than Americans on the right would use. But I’m not sure he’s meaningfully describing different concepts. For example, he relies heavily on the word “neoliberalism,” which he defines this as “deregulated financial flows, privatised services and escalating social inequality.” But I don’t think this definition succeeds in distinguishing “neoliberalism” from “capitalism.” The word, it seems to me, has simply taken the place of “capitalism” in the left’s vocabulary because after the fall of the Soviet Union, it sounded antiquated — and clueless — to say that one was “against capitalism.”
When you read what he’s written, mentally replace the word “neoliberalism” in every case with “capitalism.” I’m not sure where, and how, his analysis substantively differs from the new right's.
The whole article won’t take long to read, but I’ll point out some of the passages that struck me:
The term ‘anti-systemic movements’ was commonly used 25 years ago to characterise forces on the left in revolt against capitalism. Today, it has not lost relevance in the West, but its meaning has changed. The movements of revolt that have multiplied over the past decade no longer rebel against capitalism, but neoliberalism — deregulated financial flows, privatised services and escalating social inequality, that specific variant of the reign of capital set in place in Europe and America since the 1980s. The resultant economic and political order has been accepted all but indistinguishably by governments of the centre-right and centre-left, in accordance with the central tenet of la pensée unique, Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no alternative’. Two kinds of movement are now arrayed against this system; the established order stigmatises them, whether from the right or left, as the menace of populism.
These “movements of revolt” in Europe, I’ll add parenthetically, now receive financial and political support from both Russia and the United States. For example, the largest donors to Geert Wilders’ campaign, by far, were Americans.
Also parenthetically, while he’s right to say that financial deregulation and privatisation were policies championed by Margaret Thatcher, many people overestimate the extent of financial deregulation she championed, wrongly associating the kind of reforms she advocated with those that led to the 2007 financial crisis. As I argued in this piece for the Washington Post, that’s a myth.
Like many on the American right, including the president, Anderson believes the European Union to be an unaccountable, massive bureaucracy that robs national parliaments of their sovereignty and subordinates them to Germany’s will.
From monetary union (1990) to the Stability Pact (1997), then the Single Market Act (2011), the powers of national parliaments were voided in a supranational structure of bureaucratic authority shielded from popular will, just as the ultraliberal economist Friedrich Hayek had prophesied. With this machinery in place, draconian austerity could be imposed on helpless electorates, under the joint direction of the Commission and a reunified Germany, now the most powerful state in the union, where leading thinkers candidly announce its vocation as continental hegemon. Externally, over the same period, the EU and its members ceased to play any significant role in the world at variance with US directives, becoming the advance guard of neo-cold war policies towards Russia set by the US and paid for by Europe.
So it is no surprise that the ever more oligarchic cast of the EU, defying popular will in successive referendums and embedding budgetary diktats in constitutional law, should have generated so many movements of protest against it.
He reviews these forces in broad outline: In pre-enlargement Western Europe, protest movements of the far-right predominate. In post-enlargement Western Europe — Spain, Greece, and Ireland — protest movements of the far-left predominate. Italy has both.
He takes it as given that pooled sovereignty and the Continent’s domination by a peaceful, democratic Germany are undesirable. These are both points that I think need to be argued, not assumed; and I think they’re both wrong. But it’s his article, not mine.
All the significant movements of the far-right, he correctly notes, save Germany’s AfD, predate the economic crisis. Some have roots that date to the 1970s or earlier. But they grew in influence, he argues — and Syriza, M5S, Podemos and Momentum were born — as a direct result of the global financial crisis. This, in his view, is a reaction to “the structure of the neoliberal system,” which finds “its starkest, most concentrated expression in today’s EU,”
with its order founded on the reduction and privatisation of public services; the abrogation of democratic control and representation; and deregulation of the factors of production. All three are present at national level in Europe, as elsewhere, but they are of a higher degree of intensity at EU level, as the torture of Greece, trampling of referendums and scale of human trafficking attest. In the political arena, they are the overriding issues of popular concern, driving protests against the system over austerity, sovereignty and immigration. Anti-systemic movements are differentiated by the weight they attach to each — to which colour in the neoliberal palette they direct most hostility.
Movements of the far-right, he argues, now predominate because if their focus on immigration. But as he notes, and I agree, “this is typically linked (in France, Denmark, Sweden and Finland) not to denunciation but to defence of the welfare state; it is claimed the arrival of immigrants undermines this.”
In some countries, he argues, particularly France, the far-right has another advantage over the far-left:
The single currency and central bank, designed at Maastricht, have made the imposition of austerity and denial of popular sovereignty into a single system. Movements of the left may attack these as vehemently as any movement of the right, if not more so. But the solutions they propose are less radical. On the right, the FN and the Lega have clear remedies to the strains of the single currency and immigration: exit the euro and stop the influx. On the left, with isolated exceptions, no such unambiguous demands have ever been made. At best, the substitutes are technical adjustments to the single currency, too complicated to have much popular purchase, and vague, embarrassed allusions to quotas; neither is as readily intelligible to voters as the straightforward propositions of the right.
Now, what I think I detect in his tone is a reluctant admiration of the far-right: They’re the only ones, he seems to be saying, who are really willing to tear the whole system down and to use whatever levers need to be used to do it. We’ve seen a lot of this, historically: the far-left has always been vulnerable to co-option by the far-right; the segment of the population that for temperamental or socioeconomic reasons is drawn to revolution tends to be drawn by the group that promises it more convincingly, rather than the one that’s ideologically most pure. Modern nationalism was one of the earliest leftist ideologies; it emerged in the French Revolution. National Socialism was called National Socialism because that’s what it was. And so forth.
But to Anderson’s dismay — and to my relief — he concludes that anti-systemic parties have no hope of succeeding in Europe:
Polls now post record levels of voter disaffection with the EU. But, right or left, the electoral weight of anti-systemic movements remains limited. In the last European elections, the three most successful results for the right — UKIP, the FN and the Danish People’s Party — were around 25% of the vote. In national elections, the average figure across western Europe for all such right and left forces combined is about 15%. That percentage of the electorate poses little threat to the system; 25% can represent a headache, but the ‘populist danger’ of media alarm remains to date very modest.
I hope so, although I worry he may be wrong.
Now, he attributes the lack of enthusiasm for anti-systemic movements (or in more traditional vocabulary, the Revolution), to the widespread fear (justified, in my view) that it would make things much worse, economically:
The socio-economic status quo is widely detested. But it is regularly ratified at the polls with the re-election of parties responsible for it, because of fears that to upset the status, alarming markets, would bring worse misery.
He seems to dismiss this fear of “alarming markets” as a form of cowardice, whereas I see it as common sense. His seem to be standard far-left assumptions: the capitalist (or neoliberal) system should be destroyed; “the markets” and their judgments are bad things, rather than the only tool humanity’s ever successfully employed, ever, anywhere, to achieve First World standards of living; and the preference of most Europeans for “less misery” is somehow vaguely contemptible, given that it’s at odds with the Revolution.
He then proceeds to write a paragraph that might have been written by a more articulate Trump-wing American:
Trump’s victory has thrown the European political class, centre-right and centre-left united, into outraged dismay. Breaking established conventions on immigration is bad enough. … [But] Trump’s lack of inhibition in these matters does not directly affect the union. What does, and is cause for far more serious concern, is his rejection of the ideology of free movement of the factors of production, and, even more so, his apparently cavalier disregard for NATO and his comments about a less belligerent attitude to Russia.
Whether Brexit or Trump succeed in tearing down the capitalist system that he so deplores, he writes, remains to be seen. But he concludes there’s little hope of revolution in the rest of Europe:
The established order is far from beaten … and, as Greece has shown, is capable of absorbing and neutralising revolts from whatever direction with impressive speed. Among the antibodies it has already generated are yuppie simulacra of populist breakthroughs (Albert Rivera in Spain, Emmanuel Macron in France), inveighing against the deadlocks and corruptions of the present, and promising a cleaner and more dynamic politics of the future, beyond the decaying parties.
There are some obvious differences between his view of Europe and that of the American populist right. He views Europe as the hellish apotheosis of capitalism, whereas many Americans seem persuaded it’s an exemplar of a socialism no less horrifying than the Soviet Union.
(It shouldn't need to be said, but I saw the Soviet Union with my own eyes, and I live in Europe: Europe is nothing like the Soviet Union.)
Europe is tremendously capitalist and prosperous by comparison with most of the rest of the world. I think this is a good thing. There’s a lot of room for reform, but a revolution, anywhere in Europe, would be insane.
This, I’d say, is a key difference between a conservative view and the populist (or far-right) view. My view: Revolutions never deliver on their promises and usually result in something far worse than what preceded them. (If I thought that before, I think it twice as much since the Arab Spring.) Don’t tear down a fence until you know why it was built in the first place. It’s insane to dismiss as irrelevant the reasons the EU was built, and particularly to dismiss as irrelevant Europe’s history as the most bloodthirsty, aggressive and violent continent in human history. Changes to any political system, especially in an ecosystem as prone to war as Europe’s, should be made gradually and incrementally. If the EU is to be dismantled, it should be done as slowly as it was assembled.
Anderson concludes that the Left must become more radical if it’s to have any hope of destroying the system in Europe:
For anti-systemic movements of the left in Europe, the lesson of recent years is clear. If they are not to go on being outpaced by movements of the right, they cannot afford to be less radical in attacking the system, and must be more coherent in their opposition to it. That means facing the probability the EU is now so path-dependent as a neoliberal construction that reform of it is no longer seriously conceivable. It would have to be undone before anything better could be built, either by breaking out of the current EU, or by reconstructing Europe on another foundation, committing Maastricht to the flames. Unless there is a further, deeper economic crisis, there is little likelihood of either.
I don’t believe committing Maastricht (or anything, for that matter) “to the flames” is apt to result in “something better” being built. Ever.