Opinion: From Tony Blair to Mette Frederiksen
ROME - Social Democrats, who had been steadily disappearing following the crisis of 2008, have been making a small comeback in the last year. Now they are in power in Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland and, most recently, in Denmark.
But the statistics are daunting. The recent European elections gave members of the Socialist group 20 percent of the vote, against 25 percent in 2014, and the erosion from the 34 percent achieved in 1989 and 1994 is clear. The latest success, in Denmark, with 25.9 percent of the vote, was lower than in 2015. In Finland, they received 17.7 percent of the vote, just two-tenths more than the Alt-Right. And in Sweden, Stefan Löfven won his mandate with the lowest vote in decades. In countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy, they are becoming irrelevant.
It is interesting to note that they did not lose votes to the more radical left. The two European groups that bring together Syriza (Greece), Podemos (Spain), La France Insoumise (France) and Die Linke (Germany) received just 5 percent of the vote, against 7 percent in 2014. The votes they lost went basically to the Alt-Right. Today, the Social Democrats have popular support only in Spain (PSOE, 33 percent) and Portugal (PS, 33.4 percent). From the Scandinavian cradle of Social Democrats, there has been a shift to the Iberian Peninsula. Today, Portugal is what Sweden was twenty years ago: a model of civic values, tolerance and inclusion.
There is now a debate about the Danish model. Mette Frederiksen, leader of the Social Democrats, has adopted a very radical approach against immigrants, practically identical to the vision of the Alt-Right: deportation of immigrants to a desert island (a la Australian); confiscation of jewels and other valuables they bring with them; the prohibition of burkas and niqabs in open spaces. In 2015, nearly 60,000 migrants reached the country, but only 21.000 were given asylum; in 2017, just one-quarter of those who applied received asylum. At the same time, Frederiksen promised, among others, to increase welfare, subsidies to the poorest part of the population and incentives for young people (whom she wants to stop smoking: she has promised to increase the cost of cigarettes radically).
The Danish model is based on a simple fact. Today Europeans are governed by fear. Fear about the future, the arrival of Artificial Intelligence and robots , which could lead to the disappearance of 10 percent of current jobs: just the automation of cars would leave millions of taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers and so on jobless (something that immigrants could never be responsible for). The so-called New Economy openly declares that labour is a small component in industrial production. The excess of available workers means that the days of a fixed job are over. This, of course, contradicts the fact that the population is in steep decline. According to the International Labour Organisation, Europe will need at least 10 million more people to remain competitive in 2030.
When feelings, and not ideas, become the basis of politics, and it is the gut and not the brain that decides, we have entered the realm of mythologies and left reality out of the picture.
Take Italy. The large majority of Italian workers now vote for Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League and deputy prime minister and Minister of the Interior. Salvini has made fear the central theme of his permanent electoral campaign. As Minister of the Interior, he has spent just 17 days in his ministerial office and the rest on the road. He has defined immigrants as the main threat to the security of Italians. He holds mass rallies, kissing the rosary or the Bible, and explaining that Italy is a slave of the European Union. He has introduced new security laws, which make it easier to possess a weapon. And he has launched an open campaign against the Pope and his calls for solidarity and inclusion. He suggests that the Pope could take all refuges into the Vatican, and he has made an alliance with the conservative wing of the Church, asking Pope Benedict to come back. He has doubled his votes, and he is on the way to becoming Italy’s next Prime Minister. He is now challenging the European Union with the declaration that he will not accept the 3 percent limit to the budget deficit and claims that he is acting on behalf of the Italian people, that Italians come first and Eurocrats seconds. This is a battle that he is going to lose. The European heads of governments, not the Commission, established the limit to the budget deficit. And his fellow sovereigntists, like Sebastian Kurz of Austria or Viktor Orban of Hungary, will never agree to making any sacrifice to allow Italy to run a budget deficit.
Italy is a good example for understanding how reality is no longer important and is not the basis for politics. Tito Boeri, an international economist and outgoing Director of the National Institute of Social Security (a well-respected institution), has just published an article entitled ‘The managers of fear’. Italians are now convinced that there is one immigrant for every four Italians: actually, there is one for every twelve. Polls show that Italians (and this is valid by and large for all Europeans) are convinced that there are four problems with immigrants: 1) they will take over their work: 2) Italians have to finance the welfare of immigrants that do not work out of their own pockets; 3) they make towns less secure; and 4) immigrants bring contagious diseases with them. Well, says Boeri, nearly 10 percent of immigrants have creates companies. Every immigrant who is an entrepreneur employs 8 workers, and the labour of immigrants is highly concentrated in activities that Italians have abandoned. They provide 90 percent of the workforce in rice fields, 85 percent in the garment sewing industry and account for 75 percent of fruit and vegetables pickers. Wages in these sectors have not increased in the last 20 years: they were low, and they remain low.
But the most important fact (and this is also true for all of Europe) is that today one Italian in four is over the age of 65, compared with one immigrant in 50. In Italy, there are 2 pensioners for 3 people who work. How could the pension system survive without immigrants? Yet the over 65s are now those who vote for the Alt-Right. This imbalance is destined to grow. To maintain the current system, 83 percent of a salary goes to the pension system. In the future, how much will it cost the falling number of workers to sustain those who have retired? Already 150,000 young people, most highly qualified, are leaving Italy every year.
What about crime? Statistics show that crime has been diminishing at the same time as the number of immigrants has been growing. And what about contagious diseases where we have statistics from the World Health Organisation: Turkey is the country that has received most immigrants (over four million) in a short period of time. No data exist that show an increase in contagious diseases. In Europe, Germany has been the nation that received most immigrants in a short period of time, yet there are no data showing any increase in contagious diseases.
Fear, according to historians, together with greed, is one engine of change of the course of history. When did fear start? With the economic crisis of 2008, brought about by irresponsible finance, the only global sector of the world without control. The crisis made clear that globalisation was a failure. Instead of lifting all boats as its propagandists proclaimed, it lifted few boats, and made those unprecedently rich: now 80 individuals possess the same wealth as 2.3 trillion people. In fact, greed preceded fear. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world embarked on an orgy of private over public. The State was considered the enemy of growth. All social costs were slashed, welfare and education in particular, because they were considered non-productive. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is still doing the same: he has cut the budget of universities and has announced that he wants to “discourage” philosophy and sociology, in favour of “practical studies” like business, engineering and medicine. Gain came to be considered a central virtue. Companies were allowed to seek maximum profit by delocalising in cheaper countries, large companies to put local shops out of business, salaries were reduced, and trade unions marginalised. On its neoliberal path, globalisation was considered unstoppable.
The tide was so strong that it was called pensée unique. At first, the left had no answer. But then British Prime Minister Tony Blair came up with an alternative proposal in 2003. Given that globalisation is unstoppable, let us ride it and let us try to tame it: the Third Way. That, in fact, meant accepting globalisation. The result was that the social democracy tamed very little, and the losers of globalisation no longer felt defended by the left. Globalisation made all that was remunerable mobile: finance, trade, transportation. The State was left only with responsibility for what was not movable: education, health, pensions and all social costs.
This was accompanied by a considerable reduction of national incomes, as globalisation was able (and is still able) to hide profits from national tax systems. According to some estimates, there are 80 trillion dollars in fiscal paradises, one of the main reasons for the decline of national incomes. There was much less money to distribute. The public debt started to pile up. As I write, it now stands at 58,987,551,309,132 dollars (see the Economist debt clock for today’s figure). That has increased the debt servicing to pay and reduced the amount available for current expenses. Nobody talks of this Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of countries and their citizens. No wonder the European Union introduced a measure to limit national deficits. Italy must already pay 30 billion euro every year for its deficit. To increase the deficit, as the government proposes, in order to gain votes is utterly irresponsible.
It is worth noting that before the crisis of 2008, there were no Alt-Right parties in Europe, except for that of Le Pen in France. However, it was just a matter of time before somebody started to ride fear in every country, that the decline of the traditional parties started and that there was no answer to the massive tide of neoliberal globalisation. Immigrants began to come in handy for stoking fear, and all the victims of globalisation switched to the new champions.
Now, it is a commonplace to say that right and left no longer exist. In fact, the fight is between sovereigntists – which means nationalists tinged with xenophobia and populism – and globalists, or those who still believe that international cooperation and trade are vital to growth and peace. This debate on the present ignores that the left is an historical process, that began with the first industrial revolution at the beginning of the 19th century, An incalculable number of people gave their lives in order to have social justice, curb the exploitation of workers and introduce the values of a modern and just society: equity, participatory and transparent democracy, human rights, and peace and development as values for international relations. These were the banners of the left. This historical treasure needs to be linked to present times.
The right- left dialectic has not disappeared. Just look at the growing environmental movement today which has gone into that divide. From Trump to Bolsonaro, climate change is a left-wing operation while, if you read ‘Laudato Si’, the encyclical of Pope Francis (which few do, unfortunately), you will see that the fight against climate change is above all a question of social justice and human dignity. In that sense, the Green parties are taking over part of the battles of the historical left.
And this brings us to a central issue: is solidarity an integral part of the legacy of the left?
I ask because Frederiksen obtained victory in Denmark, abandoning solidarity and using nationalism and xenophobia. Of course, she is giving her voters ample assurances that she will restore privileges for her citizens, and it is clear that this is now a winning formula, like the Third Way was for Tony Blair in the British elections in 1997. Except that it bows to globalisation, as the Third Way did. It bows to nationalism, populism and xenophobia, the new pensée unique for so many people in the world. Will it have a durable effect for those who call themselves left-wing?
Roberto Savio is publisher of OtherNews. The Italian-Argentine is an economist, journalist, communication expert, political commentator, activist for social and climate justice and advocate of an anti-neoliberal global governance. He is director for international relations of the European Center for Peace and Development He is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.