The polling booths had only just closed on Thursday, December 12, when exit polls indicated that the British Labour Party, guided by left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, had suffered a catastrophic loss to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, which secured a large parliamentary majority. Brexit, the secession of the United Kingdom from the European Union, was obviously a dominant issue, but so was Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda, which would have led to massive investment in social services, including the drained national health care and housing programs. Labour’s failure to secure a popular mandate was disappointing (although not surprising; Labour’s polling had it headed to a Conservative majority prior to the election) to the left-wing factions of Western political parties, especially the supporters of U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Taken in toto with the mediocre performance of other left-wing populist movements elsewhere in the global metropoles, there is reason for justified discouragement. These setbacks indicate the immense obstacles facing left-wing reform.
In the middle of the 21st century, political currents representing the radical left entered the mainstream in many Western states. It started with the eurozone crisis, specifically EU-mandated austerity measures on Greece that resulted in a humanitarian crisis. In 2015, Greek voters made international shockwaves by electing an explicitly anti-austerity, far-left coalition (known as Syriza). In Spain that year, the Podemos party became the third largest party in the Congress of Deputies with 65 out of 350 seats. In the 2015 Labour Party leadership election, Corbyn won a landslide dark horse victory, with almost 60 percent of the vote, and after beating back a right-wing leadership challenged, exceeded expectations in the 2017 U.K. general election. In the French presidential election that year, the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, came in fourth, followed by the Socialist Party, led by Benoît Hamon from the party’s left-wing faction. Meanwhile, Sanders pressured heavy favorite Clinton in his 2015-2016 primary campaign, sustaining momentum into the contest for the upcoming 2020 election.
As the end of the decade approaches, a survey of these parties and personalities bring grim tidings. Nine months after securing their anti-austerity mandate, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras accepted an austerity package, a move that led to the party splitting, and in 2019 the party fell into opposition. After two general elections this year, Podemos is down to 35 seats, with the right-wing Vox party on the rise. Corbyn is now set to resign as Labour leader following his defeat. The dominant political forces in France continue to be President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche! and the right-wing nationalist National Rally, formerly the Front National. In the U.S., despite the failure of Clinton to win against Donald Trump in the 2016 election, an establishment Democrat, Joe Biden, is the frontrunner for 2020. Sanders and Warren have polled consistently high in a crowded field, but so far have yet to pose a consistent threat to Biden.
Reform is the slow-paced alternative to revolution, and no doubt it would be premature to declare the death knell of left-wing politics in the West. Yet it should nevertheless be noted that left-wing parties and movements have failed to successfully channel common grievances against the political status quo into meaningful fruit. It is obvious that the masses are angry, and trust in major institutions is at an all-time low. As inequality grows between the haves and have-nots, it would seem natural that the political left would see an upsurge in support. Indeed it has, at least nominally. The left has not, however, induced major disruption in the neoliberal consensus, while far-right governments in the United States, Brazil, Italy, and Hungary have, at the very least, fulfilled their reactionary platforms, often with lethal consequences. The extreme right has historically outperformed the extreme left in Western democracies, and that trend does not seem to be abating despite an obvious demand for left-wing policies in politics.
There are two factors I believe explain this phenomenon. The first, and the one that I plan to explore in this space, is the cultural hegemony exercised by the ruling class in the modern era. During the British general election, for example, the media demonstrated bias in its treatment and coverage of Corbyn and Johnson. Corbyn was subjected to rigorous interviews, including those related to the handling of antisemitism within the party. Meanwhile, Johnson dodged participating in a similar interview, even hiding in a fridge at one point to avoid interacting with the media. When he was shown, it was smiling and eating a scone in a staged photo op. When images emerged of a child sleeping on coats piled on a floor due to a lack of available beds at a national hospital, journalists eagerly jumped onto claims on social media that it was a hoax. It was easily shown that these claims were coordinated across multiple accounts, revealing a systemic disinformation scheme. Notably, none of the prestigious broadsheet publications in the U.K. are historically affiliated with the Labour Party; that distinction alone belongs to the Daily Mirror, a tabloid aimed at working class readers. This illustrates the working-class past of the party, which was borne out of the British labor rights movement. In highly stratified British society, the media outlets remain the circulars of the ruling class and the commercial bourgeoisie. These groups stand to lose if the radical left was truly able to implement reforms that would redistribute wealth and power. It should not be surprising that the media mediating discourse for these groups would take critical stances in their coverage of the left, which is just what they in regard to Corbyn.
The second factor that must be acknowledged is the appeal of right-wing rhetoric to large elements of the working class. The British case is proof positive of this: Labour support evaporated in northern England, where largely working-class populations voted for Brexit. Something not discussed enough in the Western press is how Brexit is not just about subsidies and sovereignty, but also about a xenophobia as toxic as Trump’s U.S. version. Johnson’s Conservatives have promised greater restrictions on immigration, and migrants and asylum seekers have become the scapegoats of the right for social and economic ills. Islamophobia is a recurrent problem within the Tories, and this includes Johnson himself, who has also said and written racist and homophobic views. Johnson invokes a caricature of the close-minded, stuffy-but-vulgar English elite, a representation of the reactionary English id in the same way Trump manifests the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” of the U.S. It is not Caesarism per se, but in the cases of Trump and Johnson, they are unmistakably products of their respective national identities. They represent a popular backlash against a globalization that is leveling cultures and changing demographics. Whereas labor was once stationary, but capital mobile, the opposite is now true; a side effect of this global mobile labor force has meant changing demographics that now threaten the homogeneous identities of some countries. This “reactionary wave” of the 2010s is a mad scramble to preserve what are, at best, tarnished legacies, popular imaginings located in the past. Yet with this quixotic nostalgia come harmful, reactionary systems of thought and behavior.
This begs the question: Is it possible to awaken a more enlightened consciousness on racial justice to the masses while they remain so saturated in dominant media institutions? What is the effect (if any) of alternative media institutions in shaping mass consciousness? Since major demographic changes seem inevitable, is the end of white dominance in the West really something that can be put off? Does that mean parochial ethnocentrism will lose its appeal, or that will it become more acute, turning violent? It may seem naïve to think of humanity uniting as one shared family, yet the alternative appears to be cleavages that set people against one another on a basis purely of identity.