The past twelve months or so in international politics has seen some dramatic events: the rise and crushing of Syriza in Greece, the emergence of a still-nascent North American left and the re-emergence of a British one, the ebbing of the South American ‘pink tide’, and the many crises facing the European Union. All this is indicative of a deeper structural change in the global economy and polity, a change of fortunes which has meant the return of class conflict to our societies. Within this larger context are the Spanish and Australian general elections, a contrast of extremes.
The Spanish context, you might argue, is too different from the Australian one to even contemplate a comparison: an unemployment rate of twenty-something percent nationally and thirty-something percent in some regions, debt bondage to the European financial system, unprecedented attacks on the welfare state – these factors mean that Spanish politics will naturally radicalise just as its economy radicalises. The Australian context, however, is about as far away from the situation described above as is possible: five percent unemployment, twenty-something years of uninterrupted growth, just wages together with a generally accessible welfare state and so on: Granny Smith apples and Valencian oranges, you might say.
But yet Australia is witnessing something new, and it is on the eve of a structural shift in its long-term destiny. To put it clearly, Australia is seeing its conservative elite opt-out from the fundamental terms of the social democratic contract between labour and capital – citizens and commerce – and is on the eve of a neoliberal entrenchment of its institutional, economic and even cultural fields of battle. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former Treasurer Hockey’s attacks on the ABC, the CSIRO, tertiary education and Medicare were the boldest attempts ever seen by Australia’s conservatives to renege on the terms of the Australian social democracy, and although their unprecedented cuts resulted in their ejection from office by their own party, those same budget cuts remain in effect with the new Turnbull prime-ministership. Turnbull, in any case, is reneging on the contract by other means; his proposed five percent reduction in the corporate tax rate would transfer some fifty billion dollars of the Australian common wealth from public hands to international private capital.
In Spain this opt-out of the right from the social-democracy is already well underway, as is the routing of its traditional left. The two-party system that had reigned in Spain since the death of Franco is now history, with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party being deserted by its former supporters upon its acquiescence to austerity, while its conservative Popular Party is now embraced by few but its own leaders after countless corruption scandals poisoned its name forever. A new political heterogeneity has since emerged to contest the homogeneity of mediocrity, and even to the right there is a new (broadly) social democratic conservativism in the Cuidadanos – Citizens – party, its principle attraction being a rejection of corruption and blatant austericide. This new plural democracy has solidified, and its new players – tieless and ponytailed – contest the reins of power with the old elite.
To this context comes the second election in the past year, the first failing to produce a mutually agreeable parliament for reasons that even Machiavelli himself would be hard pressed to unravel. This coming election is a return to twentieth-century politics: ideological and conflictual. Its contestants debate ideology and the meaning of social democracy (even a conservative party parliamentarian tried to identify his party with the social democracy recently on a radio debate), and a modern day Popular Front-inspired (although not identical) coalition has emerged between the old communist left and the new critical left, a coalition which has ballooned in the polls to something around twenty-six percent of the vote. The leaders of this coalition – United We Can (Unidos Podemos) – don’t shy away from active identification to the left; Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias recently reminded us that Marx and Engels themselves identified as social democrats, and his United Left (Izquierda Unida) counterpart Alberto Garzón doesn’t shrink from describing himself as a communist. All this is a breath of fresh air for anyone more accustomed to a depoliticised politics in which the leaders of the left seek to ‘agitate, educate and organise’ by, say, walking through supermarkets. But not only is it novel for foreign observers, but also for countless disaffected Spanish activists who either once held faith in the Socialist Party to provide and protect, or who slugged through election after election waiting for this moment to arrive; a unified, alternative, critical left.
It is refreshing because in Australia ideology is somehow a ‘negative’ word, as if something as inevitable and profound as one’s very worldview, experience, identity, reality could somehow be a negative or positive thing. In Australia our politicians numb us daily with the following nuggets of suburban wisdom finely honed through the art of polls and focus groups: playing politics/being ideological/being political/common sense/getting things done/serving the good people of (insert here unaffective electorate boundary name)/shouty politics/negative politics/being negative/grown-up government/etc. This depoliticised language seeks not so much political education as is does political obfuscation, blinding us to the global structural issues of late-capitalism which threaten our livelihoods and lifestyle, our health and education, our fragile and fragmented peace and even the very survival of the human species.
This is not, of course, to say that the current Australian election is of little consequence to all of the issues above. Company tax rates, superannuation policy, labour market regulation, climate change action, welfare state funding – these things each alone are worth fighting for, and together they mean that this election is a historic choice between the continuation of our fragile social-democracy and the maturation of a strengthened neoliberalisation. It is a new and welcome change that structural or semi-structural issues are debated in an Australian election, but yet the scope is still limited, its depth not quite sufficient, its communication stunted. As always, the sphere of international relations is absent; institutional reform unmentioned; the republic forgotten; banking, retail and media monopolisation permitted; human rights hidden. And as always, the strategy of our left is based upon a few TV ads, uneventful debates, and infinite sound-bites.
Unusually, in Spain the strategy of the new left is based upon a nearly 200 page political program containing some 394 policies for democratic revival. Covering economic democracy, political democracy, social democracy, international democracy, and civic democracy, the Podemos election platform goes against the Australian political class’ logic that electoral programs should be dripped out to the public bit by bit throughout the campaign, thus hiding the public from calculations and miscalculations, shielding the party from criticism and query. The Podemos platform comes in the format of an IKEA furniture catalogue, with its myriad of goals falling under the thematic headings of kitchen (public credit, finance, agriculture), living (culture, security), bathroom (healthcare), garden and terrace (environment), lighting (energy, transparency), bedroom (housing, migration), office (debt, labour regulation), and kids (education). You read this document and you smile, a simple fact which may help it become, as its designers hope, the most widely read political program in Spanish history. This political program is not merely a gimmick to generate news headlines, but a serious attempt at political communication that connects with ordinary people, and also a symbolic representation of the ideals of the Scandinavian/IKEA-inspired left: functionality, accessibility, and simplicity. In an article on the symbolism of IKEA for the left, sociologist Olivia Muñoz-Rojas Oscarsson writes that just as the twentieth-century social democrats sought welfare ‘from the cradle to the grave’, so does IKEA offer, literally, cradles and coffins. She concludes her article for El País asking “…what better way than to evoke the home – that space in which one immediately feels the havoc wrecked by the crisis and in which the macro-economic improvements don’t seem to appear – to arouse the sympathy of the reader and potential voter? It is an audacious manoeuvre, and everything indicates that it will work.”
And everything indicates that come June 26th, Unidos Podemos will be in striking position of state power. Should it secure the old dream of the sorpasso – the overtaking of the Socialist Party by a more critical left – and emerge in second place behind the governing conservative party (which in the previous election was decimated but yet emerged the most-voted party of the four contenders), or should it emerge triumphant in first place (not a impossible scenario) the only thing between such a victory and the securing of government would be the Socialist Party, a party already tearing at the seams between those who would reluctantly support the new left and those who would declare ‘over my dead body’. Should the Australian Labor Party wish to avoid such a similar fate, it must rebuild itself as a genuine party of the left; that is, a party committed to economic, political, social, and international democratisation. Should it fail in securing government after three years of right-wing attacks on the Australian social democracy, it will be clear that this reformation has not gone far enough and that what is needed is a corollary reform in political organisation; that is, a return to an ALP as a mass movement of people rather than an vehicle for political elites. The existential threat to the ALP is real, and a brief consideration of the fortunes of the old Spanish left should be cause enough for alarm, but ultimately, for reaction and reform.