The Black Hole of Democratic Socialism: The Decline and Fall of the Italian Communist Party, 1976-1991

Since 2016 the left has been increasingly seen ascendant for the first time since the 1960s or 70s. At the very least, the left has begun to play offense instead of defense for the first time in a long while. No longer marginal curiosities, it is now faced with the possibility of power. One question that has garnered online debate is that of what that path to power should look like, or, more precisely, what route is most likely to obtain the left’s goals? Unlike in previous eras, there is no real revolutionary left and all prominent participants in the debate accepts that the left should work with existing political parties and within the current system. Whereas once pragmatic incrementalism and cooperation with the center was once considered a betrayal of the left, now the reformist Democratic Socialists of America represents the furthest boundary of plausible radicalism.

There has never been a singular left and that is perhaps truer now than ever. Certainly, there is no consensus as to what policy goals should be pursued. Indeed, it is questionable whether developing clear, implementable policy is even useful socialist praxis. Those who believe that it is have devoted much time and effort to a strategy of infiltrating the existing political system in order to apply pressure from the left (an approach often indistinguishable from crass entryism). The Democratic Socialist approach seeks to shift the needle to the left. The argument is that introducing clear policies to the public discourse will result in a corresponding shift in what is considered possible. That Medicare-for-All has been endorsed by probable Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination has been pointed to as evidence that this approach is working.

It is useful to remember, however, that the left has been ascendant before. Indeed, in real terms it weaker than it has ever been. When one leaves the enclaves of twitter and one finds, instead, decimated labor unions and an almost complete lack of institutional power. When something approaching a socialist does manage to achieve a victory, he is subjected to a three year long smear campaign calling him, amongst other libels, an anti-semite by a vicious centrist establishment that would rather Boris Johnson run the UK than a social democrat. Even the supposed bastions of Marxism, the universities, are in reality among the leading institutions of neoliberalism and have long been stripped of what radicalism they ever had in favor of reproducing the social hierarchies and the “human capital” demanded by capitalism. It is, therefore, crucial to understand how the left has failed in the past to wind up in its current condition. In this piece I will present the example of the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano, hereafter the PCI).

The PCI is useful for us to consider because in 1976 it appeared to be on the verge of real electoral success and looked to enter the Italian government for the first time. It was by far the most successful and militant Euro-Communist party and at its peak had over 2.6 million members. Moreover, the period between 1967 and 1976 was one of intense activity for the Italian left between the 68ers in the universities and a succession of strikes by Italy’s militant, and at the time still growing, trade unions. These actions had put the establishment under considerable pressure and had forced real changes to a conservative Italian society. The Italian example is appropriate and significant because despite having considerably greater advantages than the left enjoys today, the democratic socialist approach that it would pursue following the 1976 election would fail utterly and completely. The PCI was not able to translate its significant support or the momentum of the period of social radicalism between 1967 and 1976 into the social and economic transformation that it desired. The demise of the Italian Communist Party demonstrates the vacuity and lack of imagination or ambition at the heart of democratic socialism. It lacks the revolutionary characteristics necessary to compel real social change; instead, it cannot but be coopted by the right.

Enrico Berlinguer’s Grand Alliance

In the 1976 Italian election the PCI received a historic best share of the vote with about thirty-five percent—just three percent less than the total claimed by the Christian Democrats (DC) who had effectively ruled Italy since the first post-fascist election in 1948. When combined with the Socialist Party (PSI), the Italian left had managed forty-seven percent of the total vote. For the first time, then, it was presented with the tantalizing possibility of forming government and had the potential political power necessary to pursue real reforms to the Italian state. However, he PCI’s leader, Enrico Berlinguer, declined to make a common cause with the PSI against the DC in a moment when cracks had emerged in the DC’s hegemonic grip on Italian politics. Berlinguer had developed a strategy in 1973 of a “grand alliance” of the major Italian political parties and it was this approach that he continued to follow after the election. Rather than an alliance with the Socialists, he pursued a coalition with the DC. He did so because he believed that this was the only way for the Communists to gain access to the government. An alliance between the Communists and the Christian Democrats would signal the reasonableness of the PCI leadership and would minimize reactionary fears. He hoped to advertise his party—particularly to the Americans who were adamantly opposed to the PCI joining the government—that everything was within the bounds of normal politics. If he tempered the radicalism of his party and slowly infiltrated the government he believed that he could avoid the reactionary response typically received by governments that were perceived as a threat to the interests of capital and the United States.

Berlinguer’s fears were not unfounded. His 1973 strategy was an explicit response to the US-supported military coup that brought down the democratically elected left-leaning government of Salvador Allende and replaced it with the far right military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Whether Italy would have been at risk of a military response if the PCI and PSI had formed government cannot be known, but the United States made sure to express their opposition and at the bare minimum it could have expected the punitive economic sanctions taken against France after François Mitterrand was first elected president in 1981. Such sanctions would have compounded Italy’s ongoing economic crisis.

The PCI, thus, premised its actions on Berlinguer’s belief that the most important thing was to protect Italian democracy. If the PCI moved too quickly, it would upset the fragile political order and would assure a violent response from the right. In this view, Berlinguer drew upon the historical example of the anti-fascist alliance formed in the period of 1943-47 and, in particular, Palmiro Togliatti’s cautious refusal to back revolutionary action at the end of the Second World War. Togliatti had rejected demands for revolution by partisans who had spent much of the previous years engaged in militant opposition to fascism and as a result had the conceivable military organization with which to execute such a revolution. As Togliatti believed such a revolution would be quashed by the American military who were occupying Italy and that the Soviet Union was not in position to offer the Italian Communists any help, he preached the need for a more cautious, incremental approach.

By the mid-1970s the Euro-Communist parties, of which Italy’s was the largest, sought to separate themselves from the Soviet Union on the one hand and European social democracy on the other. Since the Hungarian revolution and the construction of the Berlin Wall, Soviet communism was associated with autocracy and authoritarianism while social democracy was merely reformist and had failed to pursue any real transformative policies. While the social democratic governments had attempted to soften the worst capitalist injustices, it did so from within the confines of capitalism. Berlinguer presented his leadership as offering a “third way,” one that was neither Soviet totalitarianism nor social democratic reformism—though he never clearly articulated what, exactly, differentiated his party from the social democrats or how the PCI would bring about a transition away from capitalism.

In pursuing his grand alliance with the Christian Democrats, Berlinguer alienated the socialists who had already taken a conciliatory approach to the DC and by 1976 had become accustomed to playing a key role in Italian politics. Moreover, in 1975 they had elected as their leader the ambitious Bettino Craxi who hailed from the party’s right flank. Craxi did not forget the snub. As a result an irreparable rift was formed between Italy’s left-wing parties and under Craxi the PSI would go its own way. In 1976 there might have been a possibility of a left-wing coalition against the DC, by 1979 there was no hope of this. Meanwhile, the grand alliance with the DC had come to nought. Berlinguer was unable to obtain meaningful representation for the PCI in the Italian government and the DC instead used the alliance to foment the break between the PCI and PSI. His efforts were further undone by the violence of Italian politics in the late-1970s and, in particular, the kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrats’ leader Aldo Moro in May, 1978. Rather than initiating a transition to a new socialism, Berlinguer’s strategy benefitted the rise of neoliberalism that would begin under the prime ministership of Bettino Craxi in the 1980s.

While Togliatti’s cooperation with the center/center right in the aftermath of the Second World War was justified as a pragmatic necessity for a country not ready for revolution, by the mid-1970s Italy was crying out for radical action. If it was not the time, it was hard to see when it ever would be. Berlinguer may have sought to protect Italian democracy from the combined forces of the far right and a deepening economic crisis that he saw as a deliberate strategy intended to counter the mobilization of the students and trade unions on the left, but the outcome was instead the very permanent shift to the right that he had feared and sought to prevent. In chasing respectability Berlinguer emphasized the strong state and largely abandoned the reform of prisons and police or safeguarding the right to dissent. More damningly, instead of freeing Italy from clientalism the communists actively participated as soon as they were given an opportunity. Rather than being a force for change, they turned out to be the same as every other political party. In the 1979 election they would lose 1.5 million votes from their 1976 result.

The End of the Italian Communist Party

In 1987 Umberto Bossi, the leader of a regional party, the Lega Lombarda, was elected to the Italian senate and in 1991 a number of northern regional parties merged to form the racist, anti-European Lega Nord under Bossi’s leadership. Bossi’s movement was animated by the perceived failure of the Italian establishment to deal adequately with the mass migration to the north from southern Italy and the continued economic and social disparities between the northern and southern parts of the country and against the multiculturalism represented by the pro-European, cosmopolitan liberal politicians. While not exactly fascist, his party gave new voice to racist resentment that had long simmered under the surface of Italian politics. Two years after Bossi was elected to the senate the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the intellectual foundation upon which the PCI rested was broken.

In response to the end of Russian communism, Berlinguer’s successor Achille Occhetto announced that the PCI would change its name and abandon the communist moniker in recognition of its transition from doctrinaire socialism to democratic socialism over the previous two decades. At the XXth and final Congress of the Italian Communist Party in 1991 sixty-eight percent of the delegates voted in favor of the new name, Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) while a small faction of militants followed Armando Cossutta and Pietro Ingrao to form the Rifondazione Communista (RC). As historian of Italy Paul Ginsborg observed, “the PCI had been born a party intent on making socialist revolution, it gradually became, by one of those exquisite ironies of history, the champion of the very ‘burgeois’ democracy it had vowed to destroy” (Ginsborg, 2003, p. 161). In doing so it had brought about its own destruction.


By the election of 1992 the writing was on the wall for the remnants of the traditional Italian political parties. The PDS and RC received only 16.6 and 5.6 percent of the vote respectively. Combined, their share of the vote was less than the PCI had received in any election since the 1940s. The ex-communists were not the only ones on the decline, the DC found itself with less than thirty percent of the vote for the first time in its history. The Lega Nord, meanwhile, increased its support from 0.5 percent to 8.7 percent. Two years later the Lega Nord and Umberto Bossi would be instrumental in the election of Silvio Berlusconi.

None of the traditional parties were able to recover their previous status. The PSI has been the most electorally successful and formed a number of governing coalitions; however, its increasing embrace of the political center undermined it in much the same way that the same impulses resulted in the collapse of the French Socialist Party under François Hollande. The neoliberalism of the 1990s was not able to address the economic and racial tensions that would be exacerbated by the European Union and its commitment to failed, punitive German economics that is characterized primarily on the extreme opposition to public debt. In 1994 Berlusconi seemed an anomaly. In 2018 the centrist government led by Matteo Renzi was defeated by an anti-establishment party founded by a comedian. After three months of negotiation a coalition between M5S and the Lega Nord led by the far right nativist Matteo Salvini (who had pushed Bossi out of the League a few years earlier).

None of these developments were inevitable; instead, they were the unforeseen consequences of pragmatic compromises by the left. It is impossible to know what the outcome would have been had Berlinguer pursued a radical left strategy when presented with the opportunity in 1976, but the historical evidence strongly suggests that ‘temporary’ coalitions with the center-right in the name of pragmatism or realism only serves to undermine the moral authority from which the left draws its credibility and strength. The center is a black hole into which the left must not willfully fall yet again.

Perry Anderson. The New Old World. London: Verso Books, 2009.

Paul Ginsborg. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Paul Ginsborg. Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State, 1980-2001. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Frederic Spotts and Theodor Wieser. Italy: A Difficult Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

It’s a Big Tent and You’re Not In It: A Short History of Labour Moving to the Right

A bit ago Tony Blair’s chief whip Hilary Armstrong was on the BBC talking about Jeremy Corbyn. She claimed that while Blair was Prime Minister he had protected Corbyn from being kicked out of the Labour caucus despite Corbyn regularly voting against the whip because Blair appreciated the different point-of-view that Corbyn brought to the table. The point of this story, for Armstrong, was to argue that the historical strength of the Labour Party, and especially under Blair’s leadership, was that it was a “broad church.” By rejecting dogmatism, the Labour Party was supposedly able to accommodate a diversity of political positions that reflected the UK as a whole. According to Armstrong, Corbyn’s personal leftist convictions have undermined this broad church coalition. Thus, it is imperative that Corbyn make room for so-called moderate Labour MPs and give them the same freedom to register their convictions that Blair supposedly gave Corbyn. Of course, this ignores that Corbyn spent his first year as leader trying to appease opposition from the right by members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who responded to Corbyn’s efforts by attempting to force him out as leader. One rather doubts that Blair would have been so ecumenical toward Corbyn if he had actually represented a threat to Blair’s leadership. Instead, Corbyn spent the entirety of the Blair administration relegated to the backseats and far from any actual position of power or influence.

Tony Blair, of course, was one of the leading practitioners of triangulation. Like Bill Clinton, his political ideology was based on the conviction that the electorate is essentially conservative in nature and for a left-wing or liberal party to succeed it needed to find the perfect goldilocks position. According to the triangulators of New Labour, Labour needed to cast-off its far left radicalism and move to the political center in order to win. When Blair won a sweeping victory in 1997 the theory seemed to have been proven. While Labour has been in decline ever since, those such as Hilary Armstrong who endorse Blair’s approach continue to maintain what Labour needs to do is adjust to the right to find the current vertex on the political triangle. There is, however, a long history of this debate between the left and right factions in left-wing parties (for example, look up the Mensheviks) and the notion that Labour needs to move to the right in order to win electoral victories was not invented by Tony Blair. Indeed, the debate has been raging for the entirety of the party’s history.

In 1945 and in the aftermath of the Second World War, Clement Atlee’s Labour Party shocked the British establishment by crushing Winston Churchill’s Tories in the 1945 General Election. Labour won nearly 50 percent of the vote and went from 154 to 393 seats in Parliament, resulting in a majority of 196 over the Conservatives. Labour took advantage of this substantial mandate to initiate an ambitious program of social democratic reforms. Major industries were nationalized and a public housing program was initiated in response to the deplorable slum conditions and widespread housing shortages faced by the poor. Most significantly, the National Health Services (NHS) was established in 1948 under the direction of the committed leftist Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. The Atlee Labour government’s achievements were substantial and significantly changed the shape of Britain for the better. However, Britain remained under the shadow of the Second World War and continued to be deeply constrained by debts. In 1950, five years after the war, war rations had yet to be lifted. Meanwhile, the benefits of Labour’s initiatives were yet to be fully realized. Thus, the nearly two hundred seat majority of 1945 was reduced to just five seats in the 1950 General Election. A year later Labour lost to Churchill’s Tories in an incredibly closely fought election that saw the Tories winning the majority of seats despite losing the popular vote.

Once the Tories got back into power they accepted the large part of Atlee’s reforms, adopting what was termed the Postwar Consensus. In doing so, the Conservatives managed to co-opt the popular elements of Labour’s program while also benefiting from coming into power as the UK finally began to recover from the strains created by the Second World War. Thus, Labour found itself stuck on the outside and the Conservatives looked to be securely ensconced on office for the foreseeable future.

During the Atlee administration there had been significant tension between the left and right factions of the Labour Party, which was divided into Bevanites (after the leader of the Labour left Nye Bevan) and the Gaitskellites (after the notable representative of the Labour right, Hugh Gaitskell). The tension between the Bevanites and Gaitskellites particularly began to build when Gaitskell, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced charges for NHS dentures and spectacles. As this violated the NHS’s principle of free treatment on which it had been founded, Bevan and Harold Wilson (the President of the Board of Trade) resigned in protest. After Labour lost the 1951 election, the tension continued to mount as Gaitskell and other members of the so-called moderate faction argued that Bevan and his supporters risked leaving the Labour Party irrevocably tainted with the stain of far-left radicalism—especially sensitive considering as Cold War tensions grew in the 1950s.

In the political climate that followed Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous secret speech in which he denounced Stalin and revealed the extent of Stalinist purges in the 1930s, Gaitskell and his supporters directly tied Bevanite radicalism to totalitarianism. For instance, Gaitskell claimed, “There are extraordinary parallels between Nye [Bevan] and Adolf Hitler. They are demagogues of exactly the same sort…There are minor differences but what is striking is the resemblance.” (Thus, the centrist claim that the far left and the far right are actually the same is nothing new, but simply the continuation of an old theme). Meanwhile the young Gaitskellite MP Roy Jenkins saw Labour’s 1955 defeat to the Tories, now led by Anthony Eden, as further proof that Bevanite radicalism was toxic to the majority of Britons. According to Jenkins, “the electorate is extremely Conservative-minded and we can never win except with the kind of attitude represented by the right-wing leadership.” Jenkins comments came in conjunction with Atlee’s resignation as leader following his defeat in the 1955 election.

For Labour to return to power, Jenkins believed, it would need to turn to its right flank and choose Hugh Gaitskell as leader. Jenkins’s position prevailed in the ensuing leadership contest and Gaitskell was chosen over Bevan. Despite widespread expectations that they would form the next government, Labour lost the 1959 general election to the Tories, now led by Harold McMillan (who had replaced Eden after Eden resigned in ill-health in 1957 following the humiliation of the Suez crisis).Tellingly, Gaitskell blamed his loss on Labour’s failure to depart “sufficiently from its old ‘working-class attitudes’” as the British people were ‘radical’ but not socialist and wanted a “‘left of centre radical party’ which would make social changes without being revolutionary or authoritarian.” Somehow for the centrists it is never their politics, but their party’s far left that is to blame for defeats.

In 1963 Gaitskell died suddenly at the age of 56. Led by the more left-wing Harold Wilson Labour was finally able to return to power after thirteen years when they achieved a narrow victory in the 1964 general election. Labour would form the government from 1964-1970 and again from 1974-79. After Wilson resigned in 1976 Labour was led by James Callaghan who lacked Wilson’s personal popularity. Meanwhile, the country was faced with economic crisis as inflation topped twenty-three percent in 1975. Efforts to combat this inflation strained relations between Labour and the trade unions and further exacerbated already high unemployment. Between by-election losses and defections with the breakaway Scottish Labour Party, by 1977 Callaghan was reduced to a minority government. After widespread union unrest through the winter of 1978-79, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives delivered a crushing defeat to Labour in the 1979 election.

Thatcher’s Tories represented a complete repudiation of the postwar social democratic consensus. As such, she set about to undo as much of Atlee’s welfare state as she could manage with the same determination as Bevan et al had shown when setting it up. Faced with such a comprehensive defeat Callaghan resigned and was replaced by grandee of the Labour left Michael Foot. Foot was seventy-seven years old and had first been elected to Parliament in 1945. Foot had not just been a committed Bevanite when Bevan was around for the term to mean something, but was Bevan’s biographer. The Labour right, who had been largely quiet during the electorally successful Wilson years, roared back to the fore in protest of Foot’s selection as leader. Foot, they bellowed, was a dinosaur of the past and was wholly unsuited to dealing with the present. Thatcher’s election demonstrated that the electorate had shifted significantly to the right and that the welfare state was failing. As they always do, the so-called moderates argued that Labour needed to move to the right if they were to have any hope of returning to power. As the voters had shifted right, so must Labour.

In this battle between the right and left, the right demonstrated their commitment to maintaining Labour as a big tent. A group of four prominent members of the Labour right, including our old friend Roy Jenkins, left the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party on the grounds that Labour had become infiltrated by Trotskyist factions and was too left wing. This so-called Gang of Four was eventually joined by twenty-eight Labour MPs. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party before the 1983 election and received twenty-five percent of the vote—only two percent less than Labour’s 27.5 percent; however, Labour won 209 seats to the SDP-Liberal Alliance’s 23 and the bulk of the 1981 defectors lost their seats. The principle accomplishment of the SDP, thus, was ensuring that Thatcher was comfortably re-elected and able to continue to dismantle the welfare state.

Despite the obvious role played by the SDP defection, Foot’s 1983 loss was seen as a repudiation of the left-wing manifesto on which Labour had run. Strongly socialist, the manifesto had advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher taxes, more interventionist industrial policy, the abolition of the House of Lords, the nationalization of the banks, and the exit from the European Economic Community. Gerald Kaufman infamously called the 1983 manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history,” a sentiment that effectively summed up how it was received by the so-called moderates and the British establishment. Having lost the election, Foot duly resigned and the more right wing Neil Kinnock took his place. The SDP-Liberal Alliance held long enough to contest the 1987 election, but saw their support decline significantly. While the Liberals won the same number of seats as in 1983, the SDP were reduced to only five. As a result the SDP and Liberals merged in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, despite Labour’s shift to the right under Kinnock, Labour was unable to defeat Thatcher in 1987. There was one last gasp by the Foot wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1988 when a faction of left wing MPs, led by Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Kinnock’s leadership. In the ensuing leadership contest Corbyn and his supporters put up another old grandee of the Labour left, Tony Benn (first elected to Parliament in 1950). Kinnock comfortably defeated Benn’s leadership challenge as he received the support of nearly ninety percent of the vote in Labour’s semi-democratic leadership contest. Corbyn took his defeat gracefully stating that, “What we have achieved is a degree of activity and discussion of socialist values which would not have happened without the leadership contest” and that he believed would “result in stronger socialist policy in the long-run” for the Labour Party. With Kinnock’s leadership more firmly entrenched and Margaret Thatcher pushed out as Conservative leader, Labour went on to lose to John Major’s Tories in the 1992 general election. It was not until 1997, under the leadership of the Tony Blair, that Labour finally managed to defeat the Tories and end nearly two decades spent in the opposition.

For the Blairites, his 1997 election and subsequent re-elections in 2001 and 2005 proved the right flank of the party correct. It was Blair’s careful calibration of centrist policies designed to appeal to the widest swath of the electorate that led to Labour’s victories. Of course, when Blair won his first election the Tories had been in power for eighteen years. Considering that in an even moderately health democracy one party rarely holds office for such a long period of time, it seems rather more likely that rather than Blair’s political strategy being particularly transformative, the country was simply tired of the Tories and ready for an alternative. Regardless, Blair’s premiership meant that the Labour right, which had been fighting for dominance since Hugh Gaitskell was comparing the left-wing Nye Bevan to Hitler in the 1950s, had finally triumphed over its left flank.

Over the next thirteen years Labour largely governed like moderate Conservatives and continued to follow the neoliberal policies of deregulation, free trade and privatization initiated by Thatcher. When Labour lost to the Conservatives in 2010 the Blairites did not undergo any deep soul-searching about their policies; instead, they continued with the same old lines about the general conservatism of the British electorate and the need to follow a moderate path so as not to alienate swing voters. The rank-and-file membership saw things differently and after the mediocrity of Ed Miliband they chose the unabashedly left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Running on a left wing platform for the first time since 1983 (when Corbyn was first elected to Parliament), Labour refuted the expert prognosticators who saw Corbyn’s leadership and their left-wing manifesto as a repeat of Foot’s so-called suicide note. Instead, Labour achieved its largest gains since Atlee in 1945.

Far from on death’s door, Labour now sits as government-in-waiting. Tony Blair and his acolytes have responded to Corbyn’s leadership with constant opposition and direct challenges to his leadership. Going into the 2017 election, Tony Blair urged would-be Labour voters to instead vote for the Liberal Democrats or pro-European Union Conservatives rather than support Corbyn. Despite Corbyn’s electoral success the Labour right continues to challenge his leadership. Meanwhile Blair has begun to suggest a move reminiscent of Labour history, if the Labour right is unable to remove Corbyn as leader he and a collection of wealthy pro-EU donors like Richard Branson (who became a billionaire profiteering from Thatcher’s privatizations) have floated the idea of starting their own party. This despite the notable failure of the SDP the last time this was tried, despite Blair’s enormous unpopularity in the UK and despite the fact that a fiscally moderate, socially liberal, fervently pro-EU party already exists in the form of the Liberal Democrats and that platform managed only eight percent of the votes and twelve seats in the just completed election. But then, Blair’s ploy, like the SDP, is a power play than an electoral strategy. The Labour right is more interested in protecting their corporate friends and the cosmopolitan center of world finance which they have helped to transform London into at the expense of the rest of the United Kingdom than they are concerned about defeating the Tories. Indeed, the Blairites have more in common with Theresa May than with Jeremy Corbyn.

So much for a big tent.

Becoming Neoliberal: An Introduction

The time appears to have come for full-throated defenses of the neoliberal center. While this is an improvement over idiotic denials that neoliberalism even exists, it is at best intellectually dishonest and ahistorical in its understanding of the economic and political history of the world between 1945 and the present. A recent version of this “actually neoliberalism is good” genre has been brought to us by Noah Smith (though my personal favorite remains this oxymoronic call for a “radical center”). Smith’s argument is weakened by the fact that he apparently doesn’t know anything about the history of neoliberalism and only the vaguest sense of what people who criticize it are talking about (“Many will disagree, but to me FDR seems like the original neoliberal”). I have been working on putting together a set of posts on the emergence of neoliberalism and this one will serve to introduce the concept and give some very brief context.

Before we can go any further, the first step required is to define neoliberalism. According to Smith it is a vague and slippery term. Of course, neoliberalism isn’t actually any less well-defined than most terms. For example, try defining capitalism. Nonetheless, Smith suggests this definition: “It loosely refers to free-market economic ideas, combined with a technocratic, incrementalist approach to fixing market failures and redistributing wealth.” It’s not a great definition and misses a lot of the key underlying ideology that has resulted in the left’s opposition to neoliberalism and also shows why Smith thinks that FDR was a neoliberal. In his essential book on the history of neoliberalism, David Harvey defines neoliberalism as:

A theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.

The snide retort is that it’s basically just a definition of capitalism and thus is meaningless as a critique. That is actually kind of the point, since neoliberalism is a conscious reference to nineteenth-century liberalism. Unlike how liberal tends to be used today, liberalism in the nineteenth century (especially Victorian Britain) meant free markets, global trade, colonialism and industrialization combined with a general sense of egalitarianism (thus opposition to slavery, child labor, etc.). Neoliberalism is a form of capitalism in which the primary role of the government is to protect and expand the rights of global capital. This is why recent “free trade agreements” are more concerned with intellectual property law than reducing tariffs.

As Smith demonstrates, you can easily frame the basic principles of neoliberalism in a way that makes it sound ridiculous to oppose it, but Smith’s defense exists entirely removed from any historical context. There are two key elements missing from Smith’s article. First, what preceded neoliberalism? Why did it become the dominant ideology and why did it come to power when it did? Second, what has been the result of neoliberalism? Essentially, what have the neoliberals done?

Calling FDR the first neoliberal is absurd and ahistorical because FDR was, in fact, the leading representative of the political economic consensus that came before neoliberalism: social democracy. Social democracy came to power as a result of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The catastrophic failure of the banks that resulted in the Great Depression demonstrated to center-leftists like FDR the imperative that banks be regulated and the citizen protected against the worst excesses of capitalism. The deprivation that occurred as a result of the Depression led to the creation of state welfare as governments began to see protecting the welfare of their citizens as their primary duty. The Second World War that immediately followed the Depression created conditions of total warfare in which the government rapidly expanded into every aspect of life. This meant that a level of government involvement in the economy that was previously unimaginable became accepted as necessary to the circumstances.

After the war, social democracy established itself as the prevailing worldview and social democratic ideas took hold in much of the so-called developed world. These ideas included universal healthcare, public ownership of key utilities, the massive expansion of access to secondary education, social security, the forty hour work week, widespread unionization, and so on. The social democratic victory seemed so complete that in the 1960 presidential election Richard Nixon campaigned on a social democratic platform. It turned out, however, to have been at its peak and would soon be faced with sustained pressure that would ultimately lead to its collapse. The Nixon who became president in 1968 did so in part because he was able to successfully reinvent himself and moved significantly to the right.

At its core conservatism is a reactionary worldview and the reactionaries responded immediately to the new social democratic consensus. As they regarded social democracy as an incipient socialism, a number of notable individuals such as Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman set about to establish a coherent critique of social democracy and to articulate an alternative. At the same time a group of conservative reactionaries within the Republican Party (led by the likes of William Buckley and the John Birch Society) sought to reconstruct the party along explicitly racist lines. As I will show in a future post, racism was a crucial element to the collapse of social democracy and the rise of neoliberalism and remains a core feature of neoliberalism to this day.

Despite what its defenders claim, neoliberalism has had devastating consequences. It has resulted in the significant decline in wages at the same time productivity and corporate profits have skyrocketed. It has ensured governments protect corporate interests and not the environment, which has meant that we’ve completely failed to meaningfully address climate change. Governments have handed over their regulatory power to corporations, leaving banks free to engage in ever more destructive and criminal behavior at the same time that individual freedom has become increasingly circumscribed and normal people subjected to constant surveillance in what have become privatized police states. Yet, the first neoliberal politicians were embraced with enthusiasm. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were elected with historic majorities and remain popular even now when the disasters created by their policies are clear to be seen by anyone willing to look. It is important to recognize that the prescriptions advocated by neoliberalism were appealing to many in the context of the 1970s. Neoliberalism was a conservative reaction to social democracy, but when it arrived on the national stages in the 1970s, it was responding to real failures. Its solutions turned out to be far worse for most than the problems it claimed to solve, but this was not obvious to most voters at the time. Indeed, it is not obvious to most voters even now with the benefit of hindsight.

While social democracy was vigorously opposed by conservatives from the outset, it was not until the 1970s brought economic crises sufficient for it to be overthrown. When such crises arrived, it was the conservatives who were ready with a coherently expressed alternative that. The upshot of the groundwork laid in the 1940s and ‘50s eventually came to fruition in the 1970s. Social democracy operated in parallel with the rapid growth of Western economies following the Second World War and resulted in nearly thirty years of steady wage growth. By the 1970s, however, the social democratic economy was beginning to show significant signs of strain. Infrastructure that had largely been built during the depression was increasingly outdated and in need of repairs. Governments (especially municipal) were struggling with debt. After twenty-five years of growth, the economy was hit with recession. Finally, after the tumult of 1960s politics and the major changes it had wrought (Civil Rights, anti-war protests, decolonization, the 1968 protests), the middle classes were ready for some conservatism.

My goal is to provide some historical context in order to demonstrate both why neoliberalism was popular and why social democracy failed. In doing so, I hope to offer a detailed refutation of ahistorical centrism so that we can move forward with a clear-eyed understanding of where we have come from and what a truly leftist alternative can be. The first of these posts will be on the 1975 New York City bankruptcy crisis.

Some Thoughts on Eighteenth-Century Degeneration Theory and anti-Arab Racism Today

When Europeans began to interact with what they termed the Orient (essentially anything Ottoman empire and east plus Egypt) in the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth centuries, they were struck by the evidence of once great civilizations. The achievements in disciplines such as architecture, mathematics and literature were impressive. Yet, as far as the Europeans were concerned, these once great Islamic and Hindu nations had declined and become poor reflections of their previous selves. The Europeans, thus, asked themselves why had this decline occurred? The solution to this conundrum was degeneration theory, which posited that humanity’s natural state is toward decline and the “Orient’s” decline was the result of corrupt rule by despots (there was a significant theological element to degeneration theory, which I won’t go into here).

Though the orientalists regarded Asiatic societies as having degenerated to their current state, they did not generally view the past civilizations as having been culturally or intellectual equal to that of Europe. As the philologist William Jones put it:

Whoever travels in Asia, especially if he is conversant with the literature of the countries through which he passes, must naturally remark the superiority of European talent; the observation is indeed as old as Alexander; and though, we cannot agree with the sage preceptor of the ambitious prince, that ‘the Asiaticks were born to be slaves’, yet the Athenian poet seems to be perfectly in the right, when he represents Europe as a sovereign princess and Asia as her handmaid.

The result of the combination of degeneration theory and belief that non-Europeans were innately inferior to Europeans was two-fold. Firstly, Europeans were morally justified to intervene in the affairs of Asiatic states and peoples. This formed the basis of the moral argument made in favour of colonialism—the enlightened Europeans had a moral imperative to impose themselves on inferior and degenerated societies because the end result of European colonial and economic endeavours would be the elevation of these societies.

Secondly, though European intervention was essential, Asiatic societies lacked crucial racial qualities that would allow them to develop societies equal to those found in Europe; therefore, the interventions needed to be tailored to the ethnic realities of the society in question. Hence, the direct relationship between orientalist research and colonialism, because the orientalists sought to understand the past, “golden ages” of oriental cultures so that they could then seek to guide these states back to their previous state.

These views first articulated in the eighteenth century were put into practice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the consequences are continuing to be felt. Examples of this include that the Indian caste system was constructed and codified as much by the British imperial governments as Indian history or Hindu theology. Similarly, in Africa the ethnic categories of “Tutsi” and “Hutu” were essentially invented by twentieth-century Belgian and German colonial administrators who took what had previously been social categories and transformed them into racial ones. There are similar examples of destructive interventions into preexisting social structures in every colonized state as imperial administrators sought to impose an external order on cultures they did not understand (a trend that lives on in neocolonial disasters, as seen by the utter failure of the Iraq occupation, which American policies caused the formation of Islamic State and the complete destruction of Iraq and rather than the liberal democracy that the Bush administration claimed would be the outcome of the invasion).

All of this leads us to what stimulated these meditations regarding European imperialist thought. The recently hired columnist by the New York Times Bret Stephens debuted with an article that has inspired a great deal of criticism due to its climate skepticism; however as bad as his climate skepticism is, his anti-Arab racism is perhaps even more problematic (e.g. this column: in which Stephens called Arab antisemitism a “disease of the mind”). Writing for the media watchdog FAIR, Adam Johnson described Stephens’ views as fringe; however, the real problem is that I do not believe Stephens’ opinions to be fringe. As Johnson demonstrates, Stephens’ arguments, whether racist or anti-science, are still regarded as within the bounds of acceptable discourse. While Stephens expresses his racism more baldly than a liberal interventionist (say Hillary Clinton) does, the underlying assumptions of the cultural/ethnic superiority of the West is shared by both far right neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. Moreover, this anti-Arab racism is directly descended from the degeneration theories of the eighteenth century and the white man’s burden of the nineteenth. Indeed, the entire Iraq War was framed around notions of democratization and its failure blamed on the supposedly despotic nature of Islamic culture. The “West” is obligated to intervene in Middle Eastern countries because it is the only way to bring about Western liberal democracy, but liberal democracy is also apparently anathema to Islam.

The fundamental failure of contemporary international politics is that we have refused to acknowledge the consequences of colonialism. These consequences include the destructive ethnic divisions created by imperial powers’ arbitrary establishment of borders, invention and codification of ethnic groups, imposition of European laws and morals, massive displacement of people, forced labour and genocides. But, the colonial legacy lives on in intellectual history as well. The degeneration theory served to justify colonialism. When intervention failed to Europeanize the colonized peoples, the conclusion was not to blame colonialism, but the colonized. We have remained committed to a worldview that considers much of the world to be culturally inferior and, thus, incapable of obtaining the liberal, capitalist democracies that the same Western exceptionalist worldview ignorantly presumes to be the societal ideal. Thus, we are left with the tautology where military intervention is constantly advocated and the resulting catastrophes only serve to justify even more devastating intervention.