LM Archives
  2:41 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

General rejection results

In 1993 the voters of Western Europe have said 'Non' to the traditional parties of both left and right. Alan Harding sees confirmation of the end of a political era

'Roll up that map of Europe. It will not be needed these 10 years.' Such was William Pitt the Younger's response to the devastating defeat that Napoleon had inflicted on the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz in 1805. Pitt was proved right. But even when Europe's diplomats met at the Congress of Vienna 10 years later, they could not force a new world back into the old ways. The elections of 1993 in Western Europe are not as dramatic as Napoleon's military successes, but just as surely they mark the end of an era. The old political map of Europe, with its Social Democratic Parties, Christian Democracy and Communist Parties with a historical attachment to the Soviet Union, can be rolled up forever.

Across Europe the electorate has rejected the old political parties but has found no dynamic alternative in which it can believe. Instead the widespread mood is a mixture of bewilderment, cynicism and contempt. The peoples of Western Europe experience a growing divide between the charade of parliamentary politics and the reality of their own lives and problems.

In the French election the Socialist Party (PSF) of president Francois Mitterrand suffered its worst-ever defeat. The number of PSF deputies plunged from 282 to 70. Defeated Socialist prime minister Pierre Beregovoy killed himself, a poignant symbol of the end of his party. Shortly after the elections, Michel Rocard led an executive coup pledging to break all links with the party's tradition and to reassemble a new coalition of disparate elements around the margins of French politics. The disgruntled old guard rejected the Rocard way and the PSF has disintegrated.

The demise of the Socialists was not matched by any wave of enthusiasm for the French right. The election was above all the politics of 'Non'. No to a discredited, scandal-ridden Socialist government which had lost all purchase on its political project, but no, too, to the tired old faces of the traditional right, the Chiracs, Barres, and d'Estaings. The combined right forces of the Rassemblement pour la Republique (RPR) and the Union pour la Democratie Francaise (UDF) might have achieved a 'landslide', winning 80 per cent of the seats. But they did so with only 40 per cent of the vote - just on a par with the last election. Their success was entirely predicated on public indifference towards the PSF or any alternative. A Living Marxism correspondent in the Socialist heartland of the Pas de Calais at the time of the election noted that the typical Socialist voter would throw their hands up at the prospect of voting PSF; look for an alternative and find none; shrug their shoulders and not vote.
In the June Spanish election, the politics of rejection took a different form, allowing the Socialist Party (PSOE) of Felipe Gonzalez to survive in office as the largest single party. PSOE representation fell from 175 to 159 seats, just 18 ahead of the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) of Jose Maria Aznar. It was sufficient to enable Gonzalez to manoeuvre a majority coalition with the Catalan and Basque nationalists.

Gonzalez survived, not because of any popular support for his party in the present, but by appealing to the past and linking his opponent to the old dictatorship. He persuaded voters to reject somebody they disliked even more than him; General Franco. The TV debates between Gonzalez and Aznar demonstrated that there was no policy difference and that neither had anything to offer. The campaign became a succession of personal jibes and a discussion of Spain's past not its future. Txiki Benegas the PSOE number three managed to combine the two when he said that 'Aznar has more moustache than ideas'. The abuse served to evoke the memory of dictators - who have moustaches.

The PSOE has long lost the 'Spirit of 82', the confidence and hope which the Spanish people entrusted to the Socialists. A majority of first-time voters supported the PP, but an older Spain still found the memory of the Franco years too painful to vote for the right. Yet even in the vast poverty-stricken rural areas of Andalucia the PSOE lost in the larger towns. The Socialists also lost control of Valencia and fared badly in other cities. The youngest and most dynamic sections of Spanish society have been lost to a party which can only turn to the past to justify itself and has nothing to say for the future.

Italy is the laboratory for the meltdown of the old political order. The most recent regional and mayoral election results set the seal on an extraordinary collapse of the old political parties. The Italian electorate has said 'Non' to all the fixtures of postwar politics. The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) has all but vanished beneath an avalanche of judicial writs and corruption charges. In Milan, the centre of Socialist power for 20 years, the PSI scraped together just two per cent of the vote as the Northern League swept to power.

The Christian Democrats (DC), the leading party in Italian politics since the war, fared little better. Not only did they lose ground in the north to the Northern League, they suffered major setbacks in the south, in the Campania and in Sicily, where their control of patronage and links with the church had long guaranteed the vote. Even more remarkably, the Christian Democrats' main losses in the south were to the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS), formerly the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

The rejection of the political establishment is not a positive endorsement of the Northern League, the PDS or any other party. The Communist Party vote had been falling for 20 years when it split, with the majority becoming the PDS. The change in name did nothing to halt the decline in the party vote, down from 27 to 16 per cent in the 1992 elections. This year's change of fortune came in alliance with a motley collection of former Christian Democrats and business interests. The only reason this Alliance won votes was that it is not the PSI nor the DC. Unlike the Northern League, which despite renouncing its separatism is still confined to the north, the Alliance has a national spread: 'the only national party fighting across the country', said PDS leader Achille Occhetto. In other words, the virtue of the PDS is not what it stands for, but where it stands for election.

The one potential rival of national scope is an even more bizarre alliance, incorporating the more traditional Stalinists of Communist Refoundation, assorted radicals and La Rete (the Network), an anti-mafia group set up by Leoluca Orlando, ex-mayor of Palermo in Sicily. 'We have shown that we now are a coherent, anti-Mafia and popular-based left in this country', says Orlando, 'based on values and not ideology'. This is Orlando's way of saying that support for La Rete is based on opposition to the political old guard. La Rete has no programme of its own except distaste for the corruption of political life.

Italy provides only the most dramatic example of how the political map of Europe is now being recharted. Each country in its own fashion demonstrates the absence of any political authority.

The collapse of respect for the old order has shocked and disoriented Europe's political elite and its intellectual apologists. All the more so since the fall from grace came so swiftly on the heels of the apparent triumph of the Western order. The events of 1989-91, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the end of the Soviet Union, were celebrated as the vindication of Western capitalism. Yet as Living Marxism suggested at the time, the removal of the 'evil empire' has created more problems than solutions for the political authorities in the West.

No positive support

The Soviet Union provided the Western establishment with a focus against which it could appear coherent and strong. The collapse of the Soviet bloc has robbed it of that, and revealed the lack of positive support for the programmes and personalities of its parties. The importance of Cold War politics to the stability of the West was best illustrated in Italy, where the postwar order hinged upon the symbiotic relationship between Christian Democracy and the Communist Party. The DC was held together as an anti-communist alliance. On the other side, the PCI used its historic links with the Russian Revolution and the anti-fascist resistance to contain the militancy of the Italian working class.

The changes in Eastern Europe first undermined the credibility of left-wing parties, and not just those with a Stalinist tradition. Throughout Europe, the failure of the Soviet model made any policies associated with state intervention seem redundant. Socialist or Social Democratic parties slumped from France to Sweden. However, before long the end of Cold War politics was also eroding the authority of Europe's right-wing parties. So in Italy, when the decline of the Communist Party removed the anti-communist cement from Christian Democracy, both parties quickly fell apart.

Pining for the past

Today every Tom, Dick and Harry of a pundit talks openly about the crisis of political legitimacy in the West. They pine for an era of political certainty. The Cold War now looks like a golden age of certainty and respectability. The old political order is suffused with nostalgia because it does not have a future.

Despite the pundits' wishes, it is impossible to reinvent the relative stability of the past. The anti-communist culture of the Cold War could only temporarily hold in check a deep-seated economic and political malaise in the West. So long as they could point the finger at the East, Western rulers could divert attention from the problems of their own societies. The end of the Cold War, combined with the impact of economic slump, has revealed that they have nothing positive to offer. Millions across Europe have seen that the emperor has no clothes. The elites have been rudely exposed.

Web of corruption

In Italy parliamentarians are abused in the street. Citizens throw coins at their feet and hiss 'thieves' at them. The summits of Italian industry such as Olivetti and Fiat have been implicated in the web of backhanders and fraud. We have only to hear that seven times prime minister Giulio Andreotti, already linked to mafia killings, has had carnal relations with all the postwar popes for the story to be complete. In Italy, as in France and Spain, the endemic patronage and corruption of public affairs has really been no worse in the last three years than for the previous 40. But the crisis of the political system means that what was once silently accepted is now a major public issue.

In the absence of any positive principle, the peculiar feature of contemporary European politics is rejection. Since the Cold War is not about to make a reappearance, the elite has tried to invent a credible new political framework. Its failure has been most palpable in the economic sphere. Throughout Western Europe, all of the major parties can conceive of responding to the capitalist slump only by attacking the living standards of working people through lower wages and cuts in welfare spending.

However, the ruling elites of Europe have one big political factor in their favour. Although the old political programmes, parties and personalities have been discredited, the authority of the state itself has yet to be questioned. The electorate is disenchanted, but without a credible alternative its vision remains constrained within the parameters of the old system. Old personalities are condemned but new ones are sought to reinvigorate the state apparatus.

Italy is at the cutting edge of this development. Politicians and businessmen have lost no time in trying to establish new national political alliances which they hope to present as untainted and distant from the old cesspit of Italian politics. The trouble is that a glance at the background of these career politicians reveals the same brand of venal time-servers.

A great man

But the attempt to rehabilitate the Italian system has gone further than new combinations of old politicians with new names. In the discos of Milan, the trendiest t-shirts depict Italian magistrates - the heroes of the anti-corruption drive. Film director Francesco Rosi, whose dark film Illustrious Corpses revealed the complicity of the judiciary in corruption, has remarked that the assumption of judicial innocence is the greatest deception of all. Yet he also insists that the new breed of anti-corruption magistrates are different, and can save Italy.

The search for credible figures through which the state can regain legitimacy is but a short step from the search for a charismatic leader. The quality papers now constantly bemoan the inadequacies of Major, Mitterrand, Kohl and the rest, and wax lyrical about a mythical golden age of strong leadership. The crisis of the political system is reduced to a simple matter of poor leadership, and the solution becomes finding a great man with a big idea.

The great leader is a metaphor in the capitalist imagination to legitimise the growing authoritarianism of Western society. The ruling elites are seeking to divert the resentment of the people away from authority, and turn it instead against the foreigner, the immigrant or the unmarried mother. This is the visible dynamic in politics across Europe today. The capitalist system has failed. Its rulers even have a sense of their own failure. But until there is a viable alternative the politics of rejection can easily become the politics of fear and chauvinism.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk