The Democratic Party Debacle and the Demise of the Left-Center Left: A Worldwide Trend

The November 2, 2010 electoral debacle of the Democratic Party in the US cannot be solely ascribed to the failed policies of President Obama, the Congressional leadership or their senior economic advisers.  Nor is the demise of what passes for the American “center-left” confined to the US – it is a world-wide pattern, expressed in countries as diverse as Greece, Portugal, Spain, Great Britain and Japan.

The central question is why the left-center left governing parties are everywhere in crisis and will be for the foreseeable future?

The Left-Center Left:  Past Winners, Present Losers

In the past leftist parties had been the beneficiaries of capitalist crises: Incumbent conservative regimes, which had presided over economic recessions or had been held responsible for military debacles, were ousted from power by leftist parties prepared to make large-scale, long-term public investments, funded by progressive taxes on wealth and capital, and to impose austerity programs on the rich and wealthy.

In contrast, today the left/center-left (L-CL) regimes preside over crisis-ridden capitalist economies and administer regressive socio-economic policies designed to promote the recovery of the biggest financial and corporate enterprises while rolling back wages, social programs, pensions and unemployment benefits.

As a result, the L-CL has become the prime political loser in the current economic crisis, reaping hostility and rejection from the great mass of its former working class and salaried supporters.

Wherever the Left has been elected in recent years, a deep polarization developed between its electoral base and the governing party leadership.  Nowhere has the Left dared to infringe on the power and prerogatives of the very capitalist class of bankers and investors, who caused the crisis.  Instead with perverse and reactionary logic, the Left- Center Left parties have wielded stated power through the treasury to refinance capital, through the police and judiciary to repress labor and through the mass media to justify its regressive policies (especially via anti-‘chaos’ hysteria).

In Greece, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist regime (PASOK) has fired tens of thousands of public employees and its tight fiscal policies have raised unemployment from 8% to 14%.  It has increased the age of retirement, reduced pensions and welfare provisions and raised fees for public services, while foreign and domestic bankers, ship owners and overseas investors have benefited by accumulating property and distressed enterprises on the cheap.

Similar polices have been adopted in Spain and Portugal where public employees’ salaries and jobs have been slashed, pensions and welfare payments have been reduced, job security has been deregulated and employers are free to hire and fire as never before.

Prior to the British Labor Party’s defeat, after more than a decade of promoting wild unregulated financial and real-estate speculation leading to the economic crash, the Labor leadership was planning massive layoffs and cuts in social programs.

In the United States, Obama and the Democrats were elected on the basis of their promises to redress the grievances of the workers and salaried employees, who had been battered by the collapse of Wall Street.  Instead, the White House poured trillions of tax dollars to rescue the major banking, financial and speculative institutions responsible for the collapse while unemployment and underemployment has climbed to over 20% and 10 million homeowners lost their homes through mortgage foreclosures.

Why the L-CL Deepens the Crises

Over the past 30 years the L-CL parties, which were once identified with working class interests and welfare reforms, have become deeply embedded in managing the capitalist system – going so far as to promote the most parasitic and volatile forms of speculative capital.  As long as capitalist profits grew and speculative investments grew, the L-CL regimes believed that sufficient tax revenue would accrue to allow for a degree of social spending to pacify their popular voting constituency.  The L-CL parties systematically eliminated the last traces of a socialist, social welfare or redistributive alternative.

The L-LC political leadership was unwilling to envision an alternative to their promotion of the policies of big corporate and banking interests as they led to financial crisis.  When the big crash of 2007-2010 took place, the entire leadership of the L-CL was so deeply embedded in the institutions, policies and practices of the leading private financial structures, that the only solution they were capable of proposing was to sacrifice the public treasury in order to restore capitalist leaders and speculative institution to profitability.  In other words, the U.S and European L-CL parties were prepared to jettison over 50 years of social advances. The past ties to their working-class voters, trade union allies,  public employees and pensioners were severed, none were spared.  The only interest that mattered to the L-CL parties was to restore conditions for profitability to benefit big overseas and domestic investors.

This economic recession has forced the L-CL parties to give up any pretext that they could satisfy bankers and public employees, corporations and workers, investors and pensioners.  The crisis revealed the profound distance separating the working class from the political leaders of the L-CL.

The savage class austerity measures, repeatedly imposed on the working class every 3-6 months, in contrast to the vast and repeated subsidies to capital, reveal the true vocation of the current L-CL regimes.  There was never a question of choice:  From their entry into the government and from their leading economic appointments, to their subsequent agreements with the world’s leading banks, it has become obvious that the Papandreous (Greece), Socrates (Portugal), Zapatero (Spain) and Obama (USA) regimes were prepared to use the full power of the state to sacrifice labor to save capital.

Consequences of L-CL Policies and Practices

From the start, the L-CL parties decided there was everything to negotiate (and concede) with the bankers and nothing to negotiate and compromise with Labor.  The recession was too profound, capitalist interests and institutions were “too big to fail”, and labor was, in the eyes of the L-CL parties, too expendable:  ‘Let them march and yell in the streets’.  Unemployment and under-employment climbed to double digits everywhere.  The old arrangements of accommodation between the trade unions and the L-CL parties came under intense pressure everywhere (except in the US and UK) from the workers in factory assemblies, the offices of the public employees, and among the pensioners in the senior centers.

Repeated general strikes broke out in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy.  The L-CL regimes absolutely refused to make any concession to the workers.  The crises and austerity policies became the base for a real class war:  The Left-Center Left regimes were determined to roll back over 50 years of working class advances.  The general strikes were defensive battles to protect hard won advances in decent living standards.  Workers everywhere in Europe recognized the abominable working and welfare conditions in the US, where trade unions have become doormats and the millionaire trade union bosses continue to use union funds to bankroll the Democrats and protect the bureaucracy’s privileges and wealth.


The Left-Center Left regimes are paying a high electoral price for sacrificing the working class in order to save the bankers:  Obama’s recent electoral defeat is only a forerunner of future losses for the Spanish, Greek, Portuguese Socialists and other L-CL regimes.  Their austerity policies have led them to ‘fall between two chairs’: They alienate workers and strengthen the capitalist class, which already has its own “natural” conservative capitalist parties.  The “hard right” everywhere is advancing, sensing the debacle of the center-left as an opportunity to deepen and widen the frontal assault on labor rights, social welfare and any semblance of legal protection.

Faced with this assault, the main defense of militant workers in Southern Europe is the general strike, (totally absent for over a century in the US). But even so, given the ferocious backing of all of Europe’s (and the US) ruling classes for the regressive austerity policies, it is becoming clear that the positive experience of massive class solidarity is not enough.  Greece has had half dozen general strikes. France has been shut down by a nationwide strike.  Spain has more to come.  But their L-CL rulers continue slashing and burning workers rights and living standards now and for years to come.

What will it take to stop and reverse this capitalist juggernaut?  It is clear that the L-CL parties, as we know them, are part of the problem and not the solution. Will new working class parties and movements emerge that can combine mass general strikes with challenges for state power?  Will the rising power of the electoral right lead to a parallel rise of the left?

As of today, little or nothing of a left-right political polarization appears on the horizon in the United States where most of the union and social movement leaders are tied to the Democratic Party.  In contrast, in Europe, particularly in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain, extra-parliamentary mass struggles will continue and perhaps intensify, raising the specter of possible popular uprisings as conditions continue to deteriorate.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on November 7th, 2010 at 7:38am #

    An amusing piece of EU-bashing dressed up as a commentary on the US election. Note that the EU itself is never mentioned and nothing is actually said about Japan. Note also that Ireland (the “I” in the “pigs” sneer) is not mentioned, no doubt because general strikes are not part of the political culture, whereas the French and Italian centre-right governments are turned into leftists, no doubt because one-day general strikes are very common there. And, of course, no mention is made of Wall St’s failed attack on the euro using sovereign debt as a weapon, which made all these austerity measures necessary in the first place. At a guess, I’d say the last sentence was written first and the rest tailored to it. Indeed, the whole thing is classic 50s generation reasoning. An artificial intellectual construct is edified and reality is then straightjacketed into it. Blackbirds are white. The only reason why we think they are black is because we’re looking at them from the wrong perspective!

  2. mary said on November 7th, 2010 at 7:48am #

    Keep bashing the EU. Nasty fascist undemocratic nest of capitalist vipers.

  3. Don Hawkins said on November 7th, 2010 at 7:59am #

    Oh Mary I feel there is probably a few Nasty fascist undemocratic nest of capitalist vipers in the EU and in most places on Earth just maybe deep in the Amazon as the Sun rises in the East…………………………

  4. 3bancan said on November 7th, 2010 at 8:13am #

    A very good analysis by James Petras. The situation in Europe is the same as in the US: there is no difference between the Right and the Left except in the name of the parties. For the last 30 years Europe has been copying the US financial and socio-economic policies and becoming more and more zionazified. I can’t see one single exeption to this rule. Europe has become a zionazified fascist continent, just like North America…

  5. Rehmat said on November 7th, 2010 at 11:13am #

    No matter which way you slice it – the winner, as usual, is Israel.

  6. mary said on November 7th, 2010 at 2:06pm #

    Especially for those amongst us who support the EU!

    Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation

    David Cronin’s important new book Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occuption (Pluto Press) is now available, filling a key void in the growing body of literature on the role of the Israel lobby. Cronin is one of the very few journalists who regularly exposes the pernicious role of the Israel lobby in Brussels and the long-standing hypocrisies of the European Union. (See some of Cronin’s articles published on PULSE in the past, here and here).

    “‘ In carefully crafted official statements, the European Union presents itself as an honest broker in the Middle East. In reality, however, the EU’s 27 governments have been engaged in a long process of accommodating Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.”‘

    Journalist David Cronin interrogates the relationship and its outcomes. A recent agreement for ‘more intense, more fruitful, more influential co-operation’ between the EU and Israel has meant that Israel has become a member state of the Union in all but name. Cronin shows that rather than using this relationship to encourage Israeli restraint, the EU has legitimised actions such as the ill-treatment of prisoners and the Gaza invasion.

    Concluding his account, Cronin calls for a continuation and deepening of international activism and protest to halt the EU’s slide into complicity.

  7. Andres Kargar said on November 7th, 2010 at 2:30pm #

    In the name of labor, Western center left has been committing treason against labor and the working classes for decades, promoting politics of class compromise and selling out to the capitalist classes. Other than name, does the British Labor Party – for example – have anything to do with labor?

    How about the Spanish Socialist Party which openly conspires against the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions? And the Greek ‘socialists’ who sell out the entire Greek working class to Goldman Sachs?

    In Chile, the ‘socialist’ idiots who, from the outset decided they weren’t going to stand up to neo-liberal policies, couldn’t hold on to power more than one term. With their votes, the people essentially announced that the so-called socialists were not that different from the conservative sectors of the ruling class.

    In all these countries, the working classes are subjected to political-economic violence on a daily basis in the form of government austerity plans, cuts, police violence, etc, and not a word from the complacent liberals, but the moment progressive forces talk of action to bring to power an alternative force with distinct working-class politics, these ‘social democrats’ cry foul. Isn’t it time to, once again, put back class struggle and class warfare in our politics?

  8. hayate said on November 7th, 2010 at 10:57pm #

    Decent analysis from Petras. The establishment “left” has sold out big time and are really the same old ziofascism/fascism now, but wearing a “concerned” expression. These are not leftists, they are just more robber baron junk. Junk that should be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner asap. ;D The general trend of these ziofascists/fascists masquerading as leftists/progressives has been to turn every leftwing political party worldwide into another example of the ziofascist american democrat party.

  9. commoner3 said on November 8th, 2010 at 4:25am #

    MichaelKenny wrote:
    “And, of course, no mention is made of Wall St’s failed attack on the euro using sovereign debt as a weapon, which made all these austerity measures necessary in the first place. ”
    Can you explain what that “attack on euro using supreme funds” scenario is , and if austerity measure are REALLY needed why not tax the super-rich who are flushed with cash instead of taxing the working class and the poor??!!
    Are you sure that the implosion of the real-state bubble is not the REAL reason for that need to the so called austerity to replenish the bankers for their losses instead of hauling them to jail.
    Here in the US as there cries for austerity and balancing the budget, the same people who said few years back that deficits are not important are calling for more tax cuts for the super-rich who are already flushed with cash ??!!

  10. commoner3 said on November 8th, 2010 at 4:40am #

    It is very obvious that ALL these so called socialist or center-left parties, both in Europe and the Americas, have been bought or threatened and intimidated into submission. They kept the names, slogans and rethoric but doing the opposite of these slogans and rethoric.!

  11. Josie Michel-Bruening said on November 8th, 2010 at 10:06am #

    Appreciating this new article by James Petras, I eventually join the comment of “commoner3”: “It is very obvious that ALL these so called socialist or center-left parties, both in Europe and the Americas, have been bought or threatened and intimidated into submission. They kept the names, slogans and rethoric but doing the opposite of these slogans and rethoric.”
    However, there are exceptions still in Latin America, as for Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and some others trying to join ALBA.
    Apart from this, some people within this forum are wanting to reduce the blame on fascist Zionism. One should regard also the rich of which country are profitting first of all.
    Those questions provoked for instance me for snatching the relicts of the U.S. foreign policy, to which the Federal Republic of Germany owed its economical revival by “Marshall-Plan” (European Recovery Program) after World War II, so that we could serve as a “bulwark against communism”.
    In 1979 professor of finance Edward Herman and professor of linguistic Noam Chomsky wrote the book, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I, and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
    “Chomsky and Herman cite official statements by State Department planner George Kennan, to illustrate the mindset behind US policy in Latin America and around the world. In 1948, Kennan wrote Policy Planning Study 23, stating that if the U.S. wanted to maintain (and expand) its position of world dominance, it could not truly respect human rights and democracy abroad. The document said:

    We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only about 6 percent of its population…In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity…To do so we will have to dispense with sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization.

    Kennan elaborated on this concept in a 1950 briefing of U.S. ambassadors to Latin American countries. Of prime importance was to prevent the spreading of the idea “that governments are responsible for the well being of their people.” To combat the proliferation of this idea, Kennan argued that “we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government…It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal one if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communist.”
    s., Hans Bennet, ;

  12. Ron Horn said on November 8th, 2010 at 11:54am #

    The author provides a good overview of recent economic events in Western capitalist countries in an attempt to draw out their implications for political trends. Europe’s social democratic type of capitalism and US’s more anemic version, what Petras refers to as governments supported by center/left-left collusions with the capitalist ruling classes, is being entirely dismantled. The left-wing union and political leadership that are tied to this structure have failed to act effectively, leaving angry ordinary people to fend for themselves. This has encouraged right-wing, fascist leaning political forces to step up their policies.

    This drama is only in its first act and nobody knows how it is going to play out. Will aggressive leadership and organizations arise from the many millions of struggling workers? Or will we see working people resigned to be sheep for the capitalist sheepherders who intend to lead them into ever smaller pens and ultimately the slaughterhouse. Will working people allow this barbaric system to destroy the environment that sustains human and other life forms? One thing appears certain–the old social democratic left is dead. Maybe that was a necessary step before working people wake up and take matters into their own hands.