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Austerity and the European Radical Left Agenda

In a plenary session of 6 November 2014 at the 11th Historical Materialism conference, on “The European Radical Left at the Crossroads”, the following academics-cum-activists were the voice of the European radical left:

Josep Maria Antentas on “Regime crisis and political strategy in the Spanish State”

Stathis Kouvelakis on “The Greek radical left and the dilemma of power”

Panagiotis Sotiris on “How can we change the world, if we can’t change ourselves? The challenges facing the anti-capitalist left in Europe” 

They spoke feelingly and well. The recent electoral successes of and promises for Syriza and Podemos naturally featured significantly; the contradictions of the radical left being “in power” came up; political polarization amidst austerity regimes was recognized as an opportunity for the radical left; that the radical left needs to get a suitable agenda worked out to consolidate electoral support was  strongly asserted. 

It was perhaps a sign of the panel’s Eurocentrism that so much of the talk about “strategy”, “agenda”, “change”, being “in power”, “opportunity” and so on – so much of the position announced on behalf of the radical left in the context of financial crisis and austerity – was premised on the a priori legitimacy of the electoral process. At several points the speakers confirmed that questioning that legitimacy is akin to death, an adherence to a minority position so insignificant and perverse that it’s barely worth pausing on for a moment.

To the radical left elsewhere – in India, for instance – it is not yet clear that the legitimacy of the electoral process is unquestionable.

Questioning this legitimacy is not necessarily the same as rejecting the exercise of universal suffrage as a reasonably sound way of expressing democratic will. Let’s say, the radical left has good reasons to accept that and court the democratic will accordingly. Questioning the legitimacy of the electoral process is a matter of examining the political economy of that process as it is structured in specific contexts at present. That entails recognizing that multi-party elections don’t happen in a vacuum, they work within and in terms of a legislative, juridical and, importantly, financial establishment, wherein private and public interest groups play tractable and legal roles (not to speak of questionably legal roles). The establishment and those legal roles are possibly not ideology-free, and participation may well call for pre-emptive ideological subscription to, for instance, dominant capitalist economic tenets. The contract between constitutional state and citizen that is fulfilled in the electoral process may have this as a precondition. There is yet space for some pause on the functioning preconditions which currently enable and ideologically define majoritarian democracy. That might have something to do with “the dilemma of power” which Kouvelakis described as a kind of powerlessness. The moralistic vein in which Sotiris articulated the need to “change ourselves” – assuming “us” is the radical left – should have included the courage to pursue questions which cause unease. Neo-realist liberals often approach the putative legitimacy of the electoral process more unflinchingly. 

Suman Gupta, November 2014