Making Use of the Vacuum of Hegemony

Anna Striethors, RLF Brussels

Report on the Transform conference in Palma de Mallorca, March 2010

“Why Seems the Crisis to Favour Rather the Right than the Left?” In March 2010, the leftist network Transform!Europe invited experts from all over Europe to Palma de Mallorca to discusses strategic options for the left during the crisis.

The debate first of all addressed the question of an analysis as to whether the crisis has in fact strengthened the position of right-wing political forces, as assumed at the outset. A study by the Austrian Barbara Steiner, who had compared the results of the elections in a number of European countries, arrived at no clear conclusion. Many took issue with the thesis of the Czech Jiri Malek that crises always help the rightists: Ruurik Holm from Finland pointed out, for example, that the Finnish economic crisis during the nineties has led to a landslide victory of the left. Other participants argued that the right, too, had been caught unprepared by the crisis and would now have to reconsider its neo-liberal positions. Some even went as far as Richard Detje of the magazine Sozialismus, who noted a vacuum of hegemony, in view of the obsolescence of deregulation and depoliticising. In his opinion, the situation has seldom been as open as now; the left, he said, must make use of this.

Country reports indicated that the crisis has had very different consequence in the various countries of Europe, due to dissimilar initial situations: While 8.5% of the work force – over two million people – are presently unemployed in Italy, the unemployment rate in Norway has risen to just 3.3%. However, Ali Esbati pointed out in his presentation on Norway that at the same time, there are now increasingly discussions about migration and integration in Northern Europe, too, and that the left is in many places orienting itself towards an agenda defined by the right. In Germany, such measures as short-time work have led to the prevention of any significant immediate increase in unemployment, so that the actual extent of the crisis is not yet noticeable to many.

British economist John Grahl noted with respect to the suitability of the EU as a crisis manager that the goal of the Lisbon Strategy, the Americanisation of the European economy, had fortunately not been accomplished. Only the supposed backwardness of the EU countries had, he said, prevented a subprime crisis such as the USA had experienced. Since the outbreak of the crisis, he argued, the power of the EU had grown; as an example of that, he cited the coordinated intervention by the ECB. In his opinion however, the “business as usual” mode according to which the EU had acted to date will no longer suffice to overcome the macroeconomic tensions which have emerged, or to find a way out of the crisis.

In her presentation “Women, Finances and the Left”, Silke Oetsch of aTTac showed that accepted opinion to the contrary, women will in the long run be affected more severely by the crisis than men. Among other things, the expected reduction in public sector jobs will hit them harder. At the same time, the public rescue packages are aimed mainly at industries in which many men work, such as the auto industry and the construction sector. One might assume that women, in view of their general economic discrimination, might tend to vote for parties which support a changed economic system; however, there is no empirical evidence of that. If the left wants to become more attractive for women, it must, in Oetsch’s view, change not its financial and political-economic focus, as is occasionally demanded, but rather its internal structures. The dominance of men in discussions must be reduced and organizational work distributed fairly between the sexes, so that women get more opportunity for substantive political discussion.

One of the topics in the debate on strategic options for the left was the decline of social democracy and its changed perception of the present economic crisis as a systemic crisis. Till now, said Cornelia Hildebrandt of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the left has not yet sufficiently addressed the question as to which implications this change has for building left alliances. Elisabeth Gauthier of Transform!Europe warned the radical left not to simply see itself as a corrective to the social democrats. Instead, a broad cooperation platform would have to be created which would also be able to formulate its own visions. Only thus might the left become a counter-hegemonic power – a much nurtured hope, which is however still a long way off, considering present election results.

Inger Johansen from Denmark formulated the suggestion that the left should establish itself as an eco-social force, particularly in the comparison with the Greens. Johansen pointed out that the Greens too have long since become too established within the political system to initiate a lasting transformation in European climate policy. The left could assume this role for itself if it manages to link social and environmental issues instead of playing them off against each other. The left must particularly be aware of the loss of jobs in traditional industries and the potential for jobs in environmental industries, and raise that issue. The transformation of the modern working world and the emergence of new forms of production was a topic which was seen as key for the debate around a possible transformation of the economic system. The fact that the latter was the goal towards which the left must strive, and that now, in the crisis, the decisive directions can be plotted to this end, was a point about which Walter Baier of Transform!Europe had no doubt in his closing remarks.