Europe in Revolt: An Interview with Seth Ackerman
In America, anti-austerity has found its voice through the Occupy movement, which stands resolutely outside electoral politics. But in Europe resistance has often been orchestrated through mass parties that do stand for elections. This Sunday's vote saw the stunning success of many such groups across the continent. I spoke to Seth Ackerman, editor of a special section on the European left in Jacobin's new issue, about the new developments.
Your reaction to Sunday's elections?
It’s pretty clearly a watershed moment. The outcome in France was not a surprise, but what has been surprising over the past few weeks is how much significance it has taken on. A lot of people in Europe who had been sort of brushing off the expected Hollande victory as business-as-usual are now sensing that it has caused the ground to shift everywhere – perhaps more so than Hollande himself originally intended.
And of course, the result in Greece was a surprise – or at least its magnitude was. That’s because there had been a polling blackout for the previous several weeks. The final polls showed the mainstream parties doing badly and SYRIZA doing well, but no one knew if that would last or what the margin would be. The results are staggering.
Campaign promises aside, will Hollande be forced onto an austerity track?
That’s the trillion-euro question. It’s hard to say right now, and even Hollande himself might not really know the answer. But actually, I think the question could be reversed. In other words, maybe the better question would be: Will Hollande be forced to do something bold even though the austerity track might be his tempting path of least resistance?
The mantra of his campaign since long before the election was the “renegotiation” of the austerity-enforcing fiscal compact that Sarkozy and Merkel worked out with the other European leaders. Given the context of French Socialist politics, he never really had a choice but to come out with a strong verbal stand against Merkozy’s austerity policy. The question was what exactly “renegotiation” meant and whether he would try to fudge the details, to win some cosmetic changes without any real fundamental renegotiation.
In other words, the devil is in the details, and those details are being worked out now, behind closed doors, amidst daily, sometimes contradictory, hints and leaks. It would be a mistake to assume Hollande has some specific game plan in mind and that he’s now just going to implement it. To some large degree he is and will be flying by the seat of his pants.
For example, a couple days after Hollande made it through the first round of the election, he had a press conference where he announced the contents of the memorandum he would deliver to Merkel in his first few days as president if he were to win the election. The memorandum would have four points listing France’s demands. Finally he was lifting the kimono a little on what “renegotiation” meant. And it turned out to be extremely weak tea. The four points were all very modest growth-stimulating measures, like a reorganization of the European Investment Bank, that Merkel already supported. It said nothing about the European Central Bank (ECB) or “Eurobonds,” the two most serious issues.
But as the French online newspaper Médiapart noted in an interesting story yesterday, he immediately had to shift to a bolder stance. It quoted an anonymous adviser to Hollande: “The memorandum comes with a political trap: getting beat up by the Right, which would say “All that for nothing?” and at the same time on our Left, where we’d be accused of not really renegotiating. François sensed it right away: the day after his press conference, he made the ECB his fourth point. Since then, he’s been talking about the four points, plus the ECB.”
So that’s the kind of improvisation that’s going on right now. And it’s all being done with major wild cards waiting in the wings. Greece has now become a powderkeg. The Irish will have a referendum on the fiscal compact in three weeks. And don’t forget: Hollande hasn’t finished with his own elections. That was just the presidential election. There will be French legislative elections in mid-June. In the meantime, he’ll probably want to avoid either a big ugly fight with Germany, which would make him look ineffective, or a quick, consensual agreement with Merkel, which would be seen as a major anti-climax.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front outpolled Mélenchon, despite his strong campaign. In Greece, we saw the entry of a neo-Nazi party into the parliament. Is this crisis benefiting the far right more than the far left?
It often looks that way, at least on the surface. Marine Le Pen is now set to make a breakthrough in the legislative elections in June. And the problem of immigration, which is probably the best long-term fuel for these parties, is one that’s not going to go away, which gives them a basis for staying power.
On the other hand, in Greece, the neo-Nazis and other far-right parties didn’t come close to SYRIZA, the coalition of the radical left, which came in just a couple points behind the first-place center-right party. One reason for optimism here is that there seems to be a difference in the nature of support for the far right and far left in the past few elections. In France, for example, the polls showed that Melenchon voters tended to support him because they enthusiastically embraced his ideas, whereas Le Pen’s voters were mostly disaffected and meant their vote as a middle finger to the mainstream politicians. I think that’s probably even more the case with Golden Dawn in Greece, where I doubt there is a significant number of true neo-Nazis.
One place to watch is the Netherlands, where the far-left Socialist Party (SP) has experienced a historic breakthrough over the past several years. Elections will be held later this year and in polls the SP is tipped as the biggest or second-biggest party. Now, that’s a party that has tapped into disaffection with mainstream politics, but which is fundamentally based on a very committed base of grassroots militants who build support for left politics through day-in-day-out street-level organizing.
I think we’ve been seeing evidence in a lot of places in Europe of a reservoir of deep desire for a return to genuine left-wing politics, but it’s always been neutralized in the past several decades by the sentiment that such a return just isn’t feasible or in the cards. What’s changing now is that the sense of the status quo’s inevitability is breaking down as neoliberalism itself comes to look more and more like the unsustainable fantasy.
And that feeds back into the political system, even among the mainstream parties, whose leaders have good reason to seek more maneuvering room for bolder actions, given the gravity of the crisis. In his victory speech at the Place de la Bastille, Hollande told his supporters: “You are much more than a people who want change. You are already a movement that is rising across all of Europe and maybe the world.” So we could be in for some very interesting times.