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Power Outage: Why Left Governments Falter Once in Office

Stanley Aronowitz Aug 5

Last January was an exhilarating time for the Left. In Greece an avowed left-wing party captured state power through a convincing electoral victory. In New York City one year earlier the newly elected mayor, progressive Bill de Blasio, and a like-minded city council majority took City Hall from the long-time Wall Street administration of billionaire Michael Bloomberg. A victory-starved left, especially in the developed capitalist world where neoliberalism has reigned since the mid-1970s with only scant protest and resistance, basked in the sunlight of social change. 

The Greek left party, Syriza, came to power on the pledge to end years of economic depression driven by the austerity mandate of Germany and its northern European allies. New York’s dark horse victor, running on the Democratic ticket after a stunning primary win, brandished the slogan that he would end the “tale of two cities” by substantially closing the yawning income gap between the tiny corps of the super wealthy and the rest of us.

Broken Promises

By now many of the promises have either been broken or scaled way back. The most dramatic reversal occurred in Greece. Fresh in office, the new government led by Alexis Tsipras entered a period of prolonged and ultimately humiliating negotiations for new terms of another bailout with the troika of the IMF, World Bank and the European Commission. The final outcome was the worst austerity agreement to date between Greece and its creditors. By late July, the government was on its knees, but in the name of “national unity” Tsipris succeeded in winning an overwhelming parliamentary majority — with the help of the more moderate Syriza members and the parties of the center and center right. 

Despite his rousing campaign lurch to the left, de Blasio’s political biography is deeply entwined with the Clintons and with the Democratic Party. To be sure, he boldly argued with the conservative Democratic governor, Andrew Coumo that working-class New York needed genuine affordable housing. He proposed a combination of new construction and extensive renovation of older buildings as well as a mandate to assign 30 percent of all new housing construction to moderate- and low-income tenants. Cuomo, a beneficiary of the Clintons’ Wall Street connections — remember he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during Clinton’s second term — firmly rejected the mayor’s entreaties as well as his proposals for enhanced school funding and a moratorium on charter schools. The charters, de Blasio charged, were draining public education funds for private interests. 

Unlike Greece, where a mass movement for change operated from both inside and outside of government, de Blasio battled entirely within the legislative framework. In New York State, where New York City has not enjoyed fiscal and legislative autonomy since 1977, going it alone proved to be a futile gesture. De Blasio and City Council leaders were able to moderate, but not end, the police department’s stop-and-frisk policies and to install a relatively progressive schools chancellor to replace a Wall Street darling, but he finally submitted to the charter leaders’ program of expansion, scaled back his housing program to an 80-20 formula (with only a faint hope of enforcement) and essentially gave up his early push to end stop-and-frisk — a leading demand of the black and Latino communities. 

These are only the latest in a series of dubious left “victories.” In France a coalition of Socialists and Communists came to power in 1981 with the election of Francois Mitterand as president. Mitterand’s government initially carried out a program of nationalizing key industries and greatly increasing taxes on the wealthy to expand social spending. Two years later, the government reversed course on all its key economic policies and began a drift to the right that continues to this day. Elsewhere, we have witnessed leftist movements in the Global South — the African National Congress in South Africa, the Worker’s Party in Brazil, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to name just a few — that persevered against great odds to win power only to subsequently accommodate themselves to global capitalism. They continue in power but only as the empty shells of their former selves.

The Challenge of Governing

The easiest answer to this malaise is to put the blame on feckless politicians and to cry “betrayal.” There is some truth here but not enough depth. If Greece and New York were singular this simple expression might suffice, but the record is too long to be satisfied with that answer.

Part of the problem lies in the distinct challenge of governance. Progressive or radical governments frequently find themselves constrained by the fact that most of their constituents out of necessity live in the short-term and must see their immediate needs addressed. Unlike their social movement counterparts, a left government has to keep the shelves stocked and the trains running, as it were, to maintain its credibility and its popular support. And a left government must do so in the face of fierce opposition of the 1% and its allies in the police, military and media  who seek to destroy it or place it under such extreme duress that it abandons its commitments. 

This is the bind Syriza was in when it contemplated leaving (or being kicked out of) the eurozone and not having the ability to pay for imports including food and fuel. Here in New York, a three-week “silent strike” orchestrated by the police union at the beginning of this year was enough to squash any talk of reforming the NYPD from a mayor who understands that soaring crime rates would likely be fatal to his administration.

However, left “realism” can also become an excuse for inaction. Passivity does not have to be the only response to staunch opposition from entrenched interests. A left government can also choose to mobilize its social base to fight for its program, as Venezuela’ Hugo Chavez repeatedly did in the past decade when confronting his country’s intransigent right-wing opposition.

To these partial speculations, I would like to add my own analysis, which goes beyond immediate circumstances. Since the turn of the 20th century, European social democracy and American modern progressivism have fully embraced liberal democratic institutions as the main arenas of social struggle, which has meant accepting that the capitalist system is the non-negotiable framework for doing politics within these institutions.

Socialists and Communists have differed on the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions. But within the leading industrial societies they have agreed to play by the rules. Of course, there have been disruptions such as May 1968 in France and the 1969 Italian Hot Autumn. On the initiative of the direct action movements, left and liberal politicians can and do introduce legislation to implement the demands that originate in the street but often in watered-down versions. But the movements are usually discontented with the result and sometimes resume their confrontations. In the end, neither civil rights legislation nor the enactment of women’s rights by courts or legislatures are reliable solutions to discrimination and social domination. The role of the prevailing political system is integration or cooptation of the demands and often the movements’ leaders. 

The Two Lefts

I suggest there are two lefts: the dominant left is loyal to the system. It has refused, except sometimes rhetorically, to articulate an alternative to capitalism, imperialism and the hierarchies of the bourgeois party system. Instead, it has readily participated in the electoral process, building mass parties linked, crucially, to the labor and elements of the “new” social movements that first came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s. In this reprise, there is little difference between Communist and social democratic political formations. In their mutual fear of the right they have rallied behind liberal democracy and renounced revolutionary politics.

The second tendency may be characterized as libertarian left. Anarchists, anti-liberal Marxists and some fractions of the youth movements that periodically burst on the scene largely disdain the electoral route because they agree that, apart from contesting local office such as Podemos successfully did this year in Madrid and Barcelona, the attempt to take power over a capitalist state would prove to be a sinkhole. So, for example, Occupy Wall Street in 2011 occupied public spaces to dramatize its sharp critique of the 1% it argued ruled society. Spreading within weeks to hundreds of U.S. cities and many overseas and in Latin America as well, the Occupy movement was simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-electoral, at least in its practice. 

The anti-capitalist left has its own problems. In most cases it is victim to the doctrine of localism. That is, we live in an era when one of the key tenets of the historical left — internationalism — has fallen into neglect or even worse, disrepute. Party formations are eschewed, leaving the field to the social democrats and electoral progressives. And we cannot ignore the disconnect between the radical left and the working class, black, Latino, Asian and white. While Syriza did have some ties in local communities, and New York is not without its coalitions, there still is no sense that either the Greeks or the rest of us have a well thought-out vision of the good life. Without that vision, movements come and go. When they are tied exclusively to specific demands (such as the $15 minimum wage movement), they tend to dissolve in the wake of political integration.

You can’t always get what you want. But if you give up what you need, the outcome of any struggle that lacks perspective and a serious political analysis is likely to be a disaster.

Stanley Aronowitz is a professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of more than two dozen books, including The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (Verso, 2014).


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