European parliamentary election results highlighted both the long term disaffection with capitalism’s official political institutions and the impact of the more immediate social crises across the continent, writes Ben Hillier in Red Flag.

Voter turnout for the 24-25 May polls was 43 percent – no lower than 2009, but still a historic low. In some of the eastern states, it was below 30 percent (Slovakia was lowest at 13 percent). Parties of the nationalist and extreme right made gains in a number of countries. The refurbished fascist French National Front, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Danish People’s party all came first. The Austrian Freedom Party claimed third place with almost 20 percent. Hardcore Nazi parties Golden Dawn and Jobbik received close to 10 percent of the vote in Greece (third place) and almost 15 percent in Hungary (second place) respectively.

The pro-Hitler son of a Nazi storm trooper was elected in Germany, albeit on a tiny vote. In Italy Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra, who once reportedly said that she would rather be “fascist than faggot”, was elected on former PM Berlusconi’s conservative ticket. Yet it wasn’t a far right clean sweep. In Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania and Slovakia the extreme right vote declined. Traditional conservative and social democratic parties, with reduced majorities, continue to dominate the European Parliament.

The movement at the margins nevertheless is significant, and illustrative of the anger and despair in some sections of the population after years of austerity and high unemployment. The far left generally declined, making gains in only a few places, the most significant being Greece and Spain.

Liberalism vs. democracy

The election results need to be situated within a trend decline in engagement in “official politics”. As the late political scientist Peter Mair observed several years ago, “extreme lows in voter turnout and extreme peaks in volatility [the difference between winning parties’ gains and losses election to election] have been recorded since 1990 in almost all of the long-established European democracies”.

Party identification has been in decline for decades; affiliation is one-third of what it was in the 1960s. Mair calculated that party membership declined by 66 percent in Britain, 56 percent in France, 47 percent in Sweden, 40 percent in Denmark, 35 percent in Italy and 27 percent in Germany.

This isn’t, as European social democrats and their Australian Laborite cousins have at times consoled themselves, simply the organisational expression of greater individual affluence or the remoulding of choice in the so called postmodern, post-industrial or digital era. Western democracy has become less about representation and more about governance.

“[I]t is at least possible in principle”, counselled Fredrick Hayek, one of the pioneers of neoliberal thought, “that a democratic government may be totalitarian and that an authoritarian government may act on liberal principles”. Hayek, writing in the late 1960s, was making an argument for the latter. Ruling classes from the 1970s – faced with increasing international economic competition stemming from globalised production, and a series of severe economic crises – followed practically Hayek’s intellectual lead. They turned the screws economically in a series of attacks on the working class and the welfare state. They also narrowed the democratic space.

The project was couched in the language of “community of nations”. In reality it was an attempt to reconcile states with competing agendas and to further subordinate workers to bosses across the continent. The goal was a Franco-German-dominated European counter-power to US imperialism.

The European Parliament was little more than window dressing. TheEconomist wrote in 1997 of the EU Council of Ministers being “perhaps the only law-making body in the democratic world that takes decisions behind closed doors”. The European Commission and the European Council, both unelected, hold executive powers within the EU. The (also unelected) European Central Bank defines and implements monetary policy.

The economic crisis ravaging sections of Europe has further exposed the undemocratic nature of the EU and of individual states. In 2011, George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi, prime ministers of Greece and Italy respectively, were forced out of office – not by their own constituents, as had been the case in Ireland and Portugal after those governments implemented brutal austerity – but by the European establishment.

As Tony Barber, writing in the Financial Times at the time, put it: “Two democratically elected leaders … [have been] eased out of office at Europe’s behest and replaced by unelected technocrats … trusted within the EU to pass economic reforms deemed appropriate by policymakers in Berlin, the bloc’s top paymaster, and at EU headquarters in Brussels.”

Larry Elliott, writing for the British Guardian, was more forthright: “Here’s how things work. The real decisions in Europe are now taken by the Frankfurt Group [the French and German leaders, the International Monetary Fund, and the four major EU institutions] … What matters to this group is what the financial markets think not what voters might want. To the extent that governments had any power, it has been removed … It is as if the democratic clock has been turned back to the days when France was ruled by the Bourbons.”

Situating the sentiment

With official politics less and less receptive to the wants of the mass of the working class, it’s no wonder more and more people have turned their backs on it. Anti-political sentiment among layers of the population was a logical outcome of decades of neoliberal ascendancy. This disengagement also needs to be situated within the prolonged downturn in industrial struggle in Western Europe. Between 1970 and 2004, strike activity decreased by almost 90 percent. In the decade up to the financial crisis, in almost all countries, strike levels were the lowest in the post-World War II period.

Workers can gain a sense of collective strength and solidarity when they fight. Conversely, a decline in struggle shatters confidence and leaves a sense of powerlessness and isolation. That found expression in trade union decline, which has been almost universal. In the 30 years to 2008, membership density in Germany fell from 36 percent to 19 percent, in France from 21 percent to 8 percent, in the UK from 48 percent to 27 percent and in Greece from 34 percent in 1990 to 24 percent. Associated with this was a decline in the number of activists and delegates. On top of that is the ageing of the membership. Young people, if employed at all, increasingly are shunted into precarious employment. They are a small share of total union membership.

One ramification of these developments is that, within the working class, there is less ability to push back against the ideological assault and win arguments about taking action. At the same time, there is less experience in workplace struggle. An example of how this can play out was given by Jayne Maltman, one of 30,000 sacked Woolworths workers in Britain in 2009, who told Guardian reporter Stephen Moss: “We found out on TV … that we were going to close. We just carried on as normal, and it wasn’t until we actually came out and we were all upset when we signed our last bits of paper that we thought, ‘Well, why did we go quietly?’ Why did 30,000 of us go quietly?”

On the other hand, different factors can push toward struggle. The decline of the official trade unions, social democratic and Stalinist Communist parties means potentially less bureaucratic hindrance from organised reformists who carry on about “fines, laws, restrictions” that can result from action. There is also potentially more energy from those never involved in struggle before. Those who are more politically inexperienced, disorganised and less disciplined can move into struggle more freely. They might harbour fewer concerns about the ramifications of losing a fight, whereas more experienced hands might remember previous defeats and be reluctant or more cautious about kicking back against the bosses.

Greater political volatility is a result of these long term trends. Further, economic crisis and stagnation have combined in some areas with severe austerity to produce incipient rage among sections of the population. That rage – not simply moral outrage against a world that should be better for everyone, but the destitution-fuelled rage against an impossible situation – is a yearning for power and a sense of control.

Such yearning can be expressed individually, perhaps through a flurry of fists in what to affluent and “cultured” onlookers appears only as deplorable interpersonal violence. But wherever a yearning for power exists among large numbers of people, it brings with it the potential for collective action. That can take the form of a mass demonstration, a strike or a riot. The latter is considered senseless by many, but was recognised by Martin Luther King rightly as “the language of the unheard”. It can also result in the reinvigoration of established groups and a new constellation of political organisations.

We’ve seen all this across Europe in the past few years. There was a resurgence of struggle in 2010 and 2011 in particular: street riots, the movement of the squares and the Indignados, mass protests, workplace occupations and an increase in strike activity – from unofficial and local to a series of set piece general strikes in southern Europe. The far left has gone up and down and in places reconfigured. So has the far right.


The above developments and factors notwithstanding, there is still no other force in the West that has the same mobilising capacities as the trade unions. Yet union leaders either have grown more cautious or been partners in the bosses’ attacks in the last decades. Despite recent mass struggle across the continent, the ruling classes have not been significantly pushed back.

In fact, the refusal of sections of the union leadership to mount resistance beyond set piece 24 or 48-hour strikes against recent attacks, and the lack of a sustained radicalisation since the crisis erupted six years ago, have emboldened the ruling classes to push harder. Job losses have mounted and welfare cuts have been pushed through in country after country. Racism and xenophobia have flourished. For these reasons, what has happened thus far is a series of defeats – devastation for millions of workers.

That is not to say it is over, not by a long shot. But the failure of mass action to be sustained enough to win has provided an opening for the far right. Exactly how successful they have been is a matter of debate. According to UK-based Marxist Michael Roberts, “Public opinion pollsters have found that, of those who voted for the likes of UKIP or the FN [National Front], about one-third were just fed up with all the main parties and another 10 percent were protesting against the existing government …

“Yes, there is a layer of voters who are anti-immigrant, nationalist and even racist. But this layer remains relatively small in the broad sweep of things. Take the UKIP vote in the UK. Of those who voted in the UK EU election, nearly three-quarters voted for other parties and less than one in ten who could have voted did so for UKIP. Similarly even in France, only one in nine voted for the FN.”

It is beyond question, however, that the far right has been able to relate to the anger and sense of hopelessness among at least some sections of the population. Its heinous “solutions” – attacks on migrants, Roma, the homeless, trade unions, LGBTI people etc. – provide no solution at all to the suffering of workers, and promise only more, and more radical, suffering. If it continues to grow and relate to the anger and despair, it could spell disaster in a number of countries.

Impatience demands the impossible’

Greece today is the most crisis-ravaged country in Western Europe. Industrial production is 30 percent lower than in 2005. GDP is down by almost one-quarter in six years. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, unemployment stands at 27.5 percent, which is the highest in the industrialised West in decades. The rate is almost 60 percent for young people. Some 1 million people – 9 percent of the population – have no access to health or welfare entitlements. Public hospital spending has been reduced by at least 25 percent and on pharmaceuticals by nearly 50 percent.

Yet the assault continues. In its most recent assessments, the European Central Bank still complains about “health sector overspending”, the need to reduce “social security contribution rates and nuisance taxes” and that “labour market reforms are behind schedule”.

The Nazis in Golden Dawn have made significant gains. Yet amid this devastation, the radical left party Syriza claimed outright victory in the elections (and the voter turnout was up compared with the last European parliamentary elections). Despite the existence of an anti-political mood across the continent, millions of workers in Greece are searching for a left political alternative to the parties of austerity. Syriza leader Alex Tsipras declared that the result robbed the government of any “political or moral legitimacy” to continue austerity policies.

There has been significant debate within Greece and internationally about what attitude the revolutionary left should take to Syriza, given its reformist leadership and focus on parliament. An old philosopher’s wisdom is worth quoting here: “[I]mpatience demands the impossible, namely, to achieve the end without the means. On the one hand, the length of the path has to be endured … but on the other hand, one must linger at every stage on the way.” Hegel’s point was that too often we want the truth without the hardship of obtaining it. Yet only by situating ourselves in the banality of the immediately obvious and seriously interrogating it can we move beyond it to a greater understanding of the world.

How is this relevant to politics?

Some say that Syriza can’t, using parliamentary means, deliver on its promises to end the attacks. Therefore, long live the revolutionary alternative. Maybe exceptional circumstances could bring that about. But it is the same impatience at work. The terrain of mass politics is given, not chosen. Illusions in capitalist parliaments and reformist leaders do not disappear due to the impeccable logic of revolutionary argument. It takes the (often bitter) experience of masses of people going through the process of finding out what can and can’t solve their grievances.

The development of the resistance in Greece – which still could be the most important site of struggle in Europe – surely now requires the practical testing of Syriza in office. Only through it failing to deliver in practice can parliamentarism and reformism be seriously undermined. “Failing to deliver” doesn’t necessarily mean Syriza simply selling out if elected to government, although that is something the right in the party will try to do. It could mean the party testing the limits of parliamentary possibility only to find that the ruling class blocks its program, pushing politics back to a show of strength on the streets between the right and the left. A fresh ruling class offensive which shows that the bosses are prepared to sacrifice democracy rather than concede ground to anti-austerity forces could also relegate the parliamentary question to an afterthought.

Whatever is in store, the parliamentary means surely has to exhaust itself, be experienced by millions of workers as a cul-de-sac, before a revolutionary end is possible. That’s clearly not inevitable, but it is the only way. And at this stage it still can’t be ruled out.

The European parliamentary elections provided a barometer of sorts. There is significant and growing anger and frustration in sections of the population. Future developments – in Greece and throughout Europe – will be mediated by the upswings and downswings of the different economies, the way established institutions and parties respond to both crisis and resistance, how migrant communities respond to attacks, the fortunes of the far right and how it behaves, the vagaries of struggle at individual workplaces, the response of the student movement, the leadership shown by rank and file workers and the fortunes of the left in rebuilding a revolutionary pole of attraction.