The Rise of the Non Leftist Left
The Radical Reconfiguration of Southern European Politics
By James Petras
Over the past decade fundamental changes have taken
place in Southern Europe, which have broken with previous political
alignments, resulting in the virtual disappearance of traditional
leftist ’parties, the decline of trade unions and the emergence of
‘middle class radicalism’.
New political movements, purportedly on
the left, no longer are based on class conscious workers nor are
they embedded in the class struggle. Likewise on the right, greater
attention is paid to escalating the repressive capacity of the state
instead of state intervention in pursuit of economic markets.
Radicalization of the right, including massive cutbacks
in social spending, has demolished welfare programs. The
dispossession of households has uprooted cohesive neighborhood-based
In place of the class based traditional
left, ‘non-leftist left’ movements have emerged. Their
leaders embrace ‘participatory democracy’ but engage in vertical
On the right, politics no longer revolve
around conserving national economic privileges. Rightwing leaders
willingly subordinate their economies and society to imperial led
crusades, which empty national sovereignty of any meaning while
pillaging the national treasury.
This essay will proceed to discuss these complex changes
and their meaning.
The ‘Non-Leftist Left’ in Southern Europe
The economic crisis, in particular the
imposition of severe cuts in wages, pensions and other social
welfare programs by rightwing and social democratic governments have
led to widespread discontent, which the traditional workplace based
leftist parties have been unable to address and mobilize the
people. Prolonged and deepening unemployment and the growth of
temporary employment have affected over 50% of the labor force.
Union representation has declined precipitously, further
weakening the presence of traditional leftist parties in factories.
Large-scale evictions, foreclosure of mortgages and
accompanying job losses have led to neighborhood-based anti-eviction
movements and struggles. Millions of young workers now depend on
their grandparents’ pensions and remain with two older generations
in their parents’ home. For the young workers, the degradation of
everyday life, the loss of personal autonomy and the inability to
live independently have led to revolts for ‘dignity’.
The traditional left parties and trade
unions have failed (or not attempted) to organize the unemployed.
They have failed to attract the young and the downwardly mobile
temporary workers in anything resembling class-based, class
Paradoxically despite the deepening
crisis among most workers, the traditional left has declined. Its
workplace orientation and its language of class struggle do not
resonate with those without jobs or prospects. For the
radicalized middle class the traditional left is too radical in
seeking to overturn capitalism and too distant from power to realize
The radicalized middle class includes
public employees, professionals and self-employed private
contractors who aspire to, and until recently, experienced upward
mobility but have now found their path blocked by the austerity
programs imposed by rightwing, as well as, social democratic
Frustrated by the social democrats’ betrayal and facing
downward mobility, the radicalized middle class are disoriented and
fragmented. Many have joined amorphous street protests; some have
even embraced, temporarily in most cases, the alternative
traditional rightwing parties only to encounter even more brutal job
cuts, insecurity and downward mobility.
The middle classes deeply resent being
denied the opportunity for upward mobility for themselves and their
children. They resent their formerly ‘moderately progressive’
Social Democratic leaders’ betrayal of their interests. Their
radicalism is directed toward restoring their past access to social
advancement. Their deep-seated hostility to the authorities is
rooted in the loss of their previous status as a result of the
Middle class radicalism is tempered by
nostalgia for the past. This radicalism is rooted in the
struggle to restore the European Union’s social subsidies and growth
policies. They remember a recent past of rising living standards
and “social inclusion”, now denied their own children. This
vision guides the rhetoric that the progressive middle class had
earned and enjoyed their rising incomes as a result of their own
Today the radicalized middle class looks
for practical, specifically defined and government-sponsored
policies that can restore their past prosperity. They do not aim to
‘level the playing field’ for everyone but to prevent their
proletariazation. They reject the politics of the traditional left
parties because class struggle and worker-centered ideologies do not
promote their own social aspirations.
For most radicalized middle class
activists the culprits are ‘austerity’, the mega-bank swindlers and
the political kleptocrats. They seek parties that can reform or
moralize capitalism and restore ‘individual dignity’.
They want to kick out corrupt officials. They demand ‘participatory
democracy’ rather than the traditional left’s goal of public
ownership under worker control.
Under the specific conditions generated
by the current social crisis, a non-leftist left (NLL) has
emerged throughout Europe. Spontaneous, amorphous, ‘anarchic’,
extra-institutional and ‘street-centered’, the NLL has
adopted an irreverent style. The NLL, in its origins,
rejected political parties, well-defined programs and disciplined
cadres in favor of spontaneity and irreverence toward institutions.
As the appeal of the NLL grew, the unemployed, the
temporary workers, the insecure and unprotected non-unionized
workers and the radicalized middle class joined demonstrations and
found safety in the crowds. They were attracted by the appeals from
‘the street’ to oust the incumbent kleptocrats.
Emerging from this movement aimed at the
downwardly mobile middle class’ anger, Podemos in Spain,
Syriza in Greece and Five Stars in Italy have appealed to
all the people disconnected from power, by promising a restoration
of ‘dignity and respect.’ They made amorphous appeals to ‘end
austerity’ with only a vague promise that they would create
The NLL leadership, however, is
most clearly influenced by the non-radical resentments of the
downwardly mobile middle class.
They never engaged in class struggles and
have rejected class ideology. For the NLL leaders, social
polarization is mostly a vehicle for building an electoral base.
Their participation in small-scale local struggles was presented as
‘proof’ that the NLL leaders spoke to authentic popular
The Non-Leftist Left’s Transition: From Street to
From the street, the NLL moved
swiftly to elections and from elections they proceeded to form
coalitions with traditional parties. Strategic decisions were taken
by a small coterie of personalistic leaders: They redefined ‘participatory
democracy’ to refer only to local neighborhood activism and
issues – not national issues, which were the realm of ‘experts’.
Syriza, the first NLL to reach
power, reflected the immense gap between the radical posturing of
its leaders in opposition and their cringing conformity before
Established Power (the Troika: IMF, European Commission, Central
Bank) once elected to government.
Syriza embodied middle class
resentment toward the Euro-technocratic elite in Brussels whom they
blamed for their loss of past prosperity and job security and for
the ongoing degradation of everyday life. Syriza denounced
the Troika while it remained under its tutelage. It excoriated the
EU elite in the highest moral tones for doing what its elite class
interests dictated, that is, defend the EU bankers, extract debt
payments and threaten their underlings. In practice, Syriza
never applied any class analysis to the Troika’s policy as it
continued to refer to their ‘EU partners’. ..even as they
imposed brutall demands.
Once in power the Syriza leaders
never mobilized a single mass protest and never even threatened a
general strike in the face of EU colonial dictates.
personalist leader, Alexis Tsipra,s appointed right wingers from
former regimes to key posts. He negotiated with the Troika and
caved on all strategic issues dealing with debt payments, austerity
and privatizations. Syriza never considered ‘going to the
people’. Syriza’s ‘moral crusade’ against
capitalism ended by their embracing capitalism and the colonial
lack of class analysis, class struggle and class mobilization and
its total commitment to working within a moralized capitalism
and the Eurozone to restore middle class status and security has
resulted in the most abject conformity and surrender – punctuated by
shameless buffoonery on the part of some leaders.
In the end, Syriza surrendered to the dictates
of higher powers of the Troika ad their Eurozone acolytes, but not
until it had emptied the Greek Treasury. The leaders have combined
the worst of all worlds: a bankrupt national economy, a ‘protesting’
but fundamentally colonial regime and a disenchanted electorate.
Where Syriza wildly succeeded was in
marginalizing the traditional left (the Greek Communist Party). It
reaffirmed the historic pattern: free floating movements of the
moment end up being run by personalistic leaders who presume to
speak for “the people” while bending over to their overseas
NLL in Spain and Italy: Podemos and
Podemos in Spain and Five Stars
in Italy are ready to follow Syriza’s path of colonial
subservience. They rejected and successfully marginalized the
traditional left. They have gained mass support, organized mass
protests and loudly rejected austerity and the dictates of the
While Podemos leaders talk of ‘participatory
democracy’, a handful of leaders make all policy pronouncements,
decide which candidates to support in the elections and determine
what kind of post-election coalition governments they will join.
What gives Podemos and Five
Stars their radical appearance is their opposition to the
governing parties, their rejection of ‘austerity’, their criticism
of neoliberalism – and their support for ‘micro-politics’ of local
At no time or place have they
counterpoised an alternative to capitalism. Nor have they
repudiated illicit debts or supported the expropriation of the banks
responsible for the pillage their economies.
Podemos and Five Stars
deliberately obscure their politics: They are whatever any of their
affiliates’ claim to be...
The leaders raise populist demands and
speak about ‘dignity’, employment and punishment of corrupt
officials. They call for an end to authoritarian measures, but
avoid any real commitments to institutional change, especially of
the repressive courts, police or armed forces.
Podemos and Five Stars
criticize the EU’s austerity programs while staying in the EU as
subordinate members of an organization dominated by German bankers.
They promote popular mobilizations which they have turned
into vote-gathering machines for electing their members to office.
The NLLs contradictory politics of
populist gestures and institutional commitments reflect the politics
of a frustrated and blocked middle class demanding a restoration of
its past status and security. Podemos and Five Stars
leaders put on the grand show of thumbing their noses at the
establishment to promote limited middle class demands. On a much
broader front, the leaders of the NLL have not organized any
mass protests – let alone formed a mass movement which would
seriously challenge the imperialist powers, NATO, the Middle East
wars and US-EU sanctions against Russia.
Since most of their supporters are anti
NATO, in favor of Palestinian independence and critical of the Kiev
regime the popular base of the NLL will act on their own but
will have no real impact on the current national leadership.
The reason for the disparity between
leaders and followers is clear: The NLL leaders intend to
form post-electoral coalitions with the corrupt and reactionary ‘center
left’ parties so despised and rejected by their own electorate.
Following the nationwide Spanish
municipal and regional elections, Podemos allied with corrupt
Socialist Party (PSOE). In the municipality of Madrid, Podemos
supported the left-center coalition Ahora Madrid (Madrid
Now), which in turn has allied with the center-right Socialists to
elect the ‘progressive’ mayoral candidate, Manuela Carmena.
While the entire ‘progressive camp’
celebrates the defeat of the hard-right Popular Party
candidate –little has been said about consequential changes in the
municipal and regional budgets, structures of economic power and
‘Five Stars’,( Movimento Cinque Stelle
or M5S), Italy’s non-leftist left is dominated by a single ‘anti-leader’,
Beppe Grillo, he defines the party’s programs and affiliations. He
is known for making clownish, provocative gestures against the
authorities, calling for a “Fuck the Parliament Day”.
It is Beppe who selects the candidates to run for
Parliament. While in opposition, M5S loudly opposed all NATO wars
in the Middle East, US military interventions in Latin America and
free trade agreements. But now ensconced in the European
Parliament, Beppe has aligned with the Libertarian Right.
Five Stars (M5S) central demands
revolve around ‘direct democracy’ and ‘sustainable
development’. It has captured the electoral support of the
majority of the lower middle class gaining 26% of the vote (9
million voters) in the 2013 general elections.
While Beppe and his colleagues engage in fist fights
within the Parliament, make radical gestures and spout belligerent
rhetoric, ‘M5S’ has not supported a workers general strike.
It participates in each and every election, but has stayed away from
Radicalism, as grand ‘gesture politics’, is an
entertaining, non-threatening response to capitalism since there is
no concerted effort to form class alliances with workers engaged in
‘M5S’, like Podemos and
Syriza, expresses the disorganized radicalism of the young,
frustrated lower middle class raging against their downward
mobility, while refusing to break with the EU .They rail against the
concentration of power in the hands of the banks, but refuse to
pursue their nationalization. M5S mobilized 800,000 people
in Rome recently but led them nowhere. ‘Five Stars’ convokes
crowds to meet and cheer its leaders and to ridicule the power
brokers. Afterwards they all go home.
While the ‘NLL’ movements capture
the support of the ‘indignant’, the mass of unemployed
workers and the evicted householders, their leaders do not
articulate a serious plan of action capable of challenging the
economic power structures: they raise popular expectations via
demands for ‘change’. However, these vague and deceptive
slogans allow the NLL leaders to join in a medley of
opportunist electoral coalitions and governmental alliances, with
decidedly establishment personalities and parties.
In Greece, Italy and Spain the traditional left has
either disappeared, or shrunk to a marginal force. With little or
no base outside of the workplace and trade unions, they barely
secure five percent of the votes.
The NLL has deepened the isolation of the
traditional left and has even attracted a part of its social base.
NLL’s rejection of the traditional left’s tight organization
and top down leadership and its pluralistic rhetoric appeals to the
young. Moreover, as the left trade unions have sought compromises
with the bosses to save the jobs of employed workers and ignored the
unemployed, the latter has looked to the ‘open and spontaneous’
NLL to express their opposition. In Spain’s municipal
elections, the United Left, a Communist-led electoral formation,
joined with Podemos to elect Manuela Carmena, the ‘insurgent
mayor’ of Madrid.
While the Euro-US academic left has rightly
celebrated the emergence of mass opposition to the rightist regimes
in Southern Europe, they have failed to understand the internal
dynamics within the NLL movements: the limitations of middle
class radicalism and their conformists’ goals.
The example of Syriza in Greece is a warning
of the fatal consequences of middle class leaders trying to realize
radical changes, within the neo-liberal framework imposed by the EU.
Currently, the best example of the opportunism and
bankruptcy of the NLL is found in the successful Mayor-elect
of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, whose victory was hailed by Podemos as
the ‘great victory for the people’ at recent celebration.
For her part, Mayor-elect Carmena has wasted no time
repudiating all ‘five basic emergency reforms’ promised
during the elections. In a press conference, the so-called ‘progressive
Mayor of Madrid’ announced (with a cynical grin) that ‘promise
number one’ - a public bank - was no longer needed because she
was satisfied to work with the private banking oligarchy. She
refused to pursue ‘promise number two’ - to provide
subsidies for electricity, water and gas for poor families cut off
from those services, claiming such support was too early and could
wait until winter
Regarding Podemos ‘promise number three’ - a debt
moratorium, Carmena insisted that “we will keep paying, for now”.
On ‘promise number four’ favoring public over private
contractors for municipal contracts, Carmena reversed the position:
“We can’t change right away”.
Carmena even repudiated ‘promise
number five’ - to immediately implement a summer meals program
for poor children, insisting that she would rely on the inadequate
programs of far right predecessor.
Moreover, Mayor-elect Carmena went even
further, staffing her administration with far-right holdovers from
the previous government to strategic policy-making positions. For
example, she appointed Carmen Roman, a former Director General of
the far right Prime Minister Aznar, as Senior Executive of Madrid.
She defended these reactionary decisions claiming that she was
looking for “technocrats who are the best professional
administrations”. Indeed, Carmen Roman had implemented mass
firing of public workers and the dismantling of social programs in
the ‘best professional’ manner possible!
Carmena further betrayed her Podemos
electorate by insisting she looked forward to working with the hard
right Prime Minister Rajoy and flatly rejected the idea of promoting
a progressive alternative!
In less than one week, the euphoria over
the victory of Podemos backed candidates has been dissipated
by these acts of cynical opportunism: the non-leftist left
has betrayed its electorate, from the very start!
James Petras is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus)
of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York.