• Europe’s Old and New Left and Its Constituencies (1)

  • By Alberto Garzón | 07 Mar 17 | Posted under: Spain , The Left
  • The aim of this general reflection on the transformations undergone by Europe’s social and political left is to suggest strategies and tools for promoting a more just economic and social system. For analytical purposes I see three historical steps:

    The first stage, is from 1989 to the present. It is a period of defeat connected to the fall of actually existing socialism, which was accompanied by the decline of the communist and socialist parties in the West, and it affected the left’s world view. This also involves the dominance of neoliberalism as a sociocultural project from the 1980s and the strong emergence of post- Marxist and postmodernist critical theories.

    The second period goes from the crisis of 2007-2008 to the present. It raises the question of why the capitalist system’s biggest crisis since the Great Depression did not lead to a global or left European alternative but rather its opposite, the deepening of neoliberalism.

    The third goes from the emergence of Podemos in Spain to the present moment. Here the left reference point in Spain is Izquierda Unida (IU) and the question of how and why it has been electorally overcome by this new political force and what it should do to reorganise itself as an anti-capitalist political project.

    I would first like to raise some key ideas of how the social structure has changed. Next I will look at the electoral profile of the European anti- capitalist parties and their classification. Then I will consider the differences between IU and Podemos voters. And finally I will draw some preliminary conclusions.

    The transformations of the social structure

    Today there is a certain consensus that the post-war Fordist accumulation regime evolved into a new post-Fordist regime in the 1970s and 1980s. It is also widely accepted that this transition has been accompanied by significant changes in the social structure, which has in turn affected the electoral behaviour of citizens.

    The Fordist accumulation regime, which laid the foundations of the welfare state in most Western countries after the Second World War, was essentially characterised by the virtuous circle of production and mass consumption. Its main features were: assembly-line mass production with manual semi-skilled labour; a quite stable macroeconomic system that was highly regulated nationally and internationally; companies which although featuring separation between control and direction nevertheless were very centralised and planned to grow in size to take advantage of economies of scale; wages based on a capital-labour partnership in which productivity increases were distributed through agreements between employers and unions; massive growth of consumption, an urban-industrial society, and the existence of a social wage in the form of pensions, public healthcare, education, and other social benefits.

    The dynamics and evolution of capitalism were stressing the system to the point of crisis. Around the 1970s and 1980s a new regime of accumulation opened up characterised by deregulation and a greater role for the free market as the guiding economic institution. With good reason, David Harvey has called it the regime of flexible accumulation because the essential feature was just that: flexibility.2 Bob Jessop calls it the Schumpeterian competitive state because of its hypercompetitive character.3 There are considerable doubts about its medium-term stability. It is characterised by: new forms of flexible production based on networks and outsourcing systems and the use of new information and communications technology; flexible labour relations combining highly skilled workers with unskilled workers; the general deindustrialisation of Western economies, with relocations to countries with cheaper labour costs; strong downward wage competition; a volatile macroeconomic environment characterised by deregulation; changes in the bureaucratic forms of companies towards horizontal and leaner forms; dismantling of the welfare state and increased inequalities.

    This transition has greatly changed the socioeconomic reality of Western societies. Although each country has had its own specifics, this transition is common to all. Most importantly for what interests us here, the change in the production structure and labour relations has also greatly changed the social structure. At the end of the day, the social base of anti-capitalist parties, particularly the communists, could have diminished as a result of these changes.

    The parties of the radical left

    It would seem evident that the combination of the collapse of the countries of actually existing socialism and the processes of deindustrialisation in the West harmed left political parties – on the one hand because the strength of the alternative socialist vision deteriorated, and, on the other, because it is assumed that the greatest electoral strength of the Communist and radical parties is among the classical typically Fordist blue collar working class.

    In reality, studies have revealed that the communist parties never have been the parties most supported by the working class, not even the flourishing Italian Communist Party. Nevertheless, their electorate has been largely composed of working-class voters. Therefore changes in the social structure could have affected the anti-capitalist parties. The recent study published by Luís Ramiro is a good starting point for looking at the profiles of voters of the radical or anti-capitalist left in the period from 1989 to 2009, which abounds in relevant data.4

    First, Ramiro emphasises that there is no direct relationship between belonging to a disadvantaged social sector and voting for a radical left party, even when we are talking about the working class (whether manual worker, professional worker, or public-sector employee). This is somewhat counterintuitive because anti-capitalist parties define themselves as representatives of the working class and claim to defend the most disadvantaged sectors. Ramiro notes that there is a lot of competition in these sectors, both from socialist parties and from far-right parties.

    Ramiro presents empirical evidence about those individuals who either self-identify with the working class (what we call class consciousness), are affiliated with a trade union, practice no religion, identify themselves as leftist, are discontent with democracy, or have a negative perception of the European Union. In all these cases the probability of voting for an anti- capitalist party increases. At the same time, there is also evidence voters of anti-capitalist parties tend to be either very unskilled or highly skilled. Also, in terms of age, there are indications that the profile has changed over time, becoming younger.

    These findings are extremely relevant because, in Marxist terms, they show a displacement of the voter/party relationship from the economy to the superstructure. It seems that voter attraction occurs more on the subjective and intangible level (class consciousness, ideology, and worldview) than the material and objective level (the connection between the interests of the working class and an organisation that claims to be a legitimate representative of those interests). This seems to fit with the thesis of Ronald Inglehart on post-materialism, according to which the unusual ability of industrial societies to meet basic needs has produced a shift in political preferences, causing the left to be supported by post-materialists, leaving out the popular sectors. In short, it seems that the connection of the anti-capitalist parties with the most popular classes or the disadvantaged has disappeared, or it never existed in the first place, except in political rhetoric. This is consonant with what Owen Jones warned about in his book Chavs when he insisted that the true working class had been abandoned, while the left was in a certain sense looking towards the middle class.5 However, and this is also clearly indicated by Ramiro, the study highlights that issues such as ideology, union membership, or class consciousness remain relevant despite the economic changes of recent decades.

    Classification of anti-capitalist parties

    So far we have talked about anti-capitalist parties, but actually the category used by scholars like Ramiro is radical left parties. These can be defined as the parties that reject the economic structure of contemporary capitalism, its values and practices, and defend an alternative economic and power structure involving a better redistribution of resources. We are talking, in short, about the parties grouped in the Party of the European Left (EL) and in the European Parliament group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) as well as those not in either of these but with a strong anti-capitalist character.

    Naturally within this category there is significant heterogeneity, and Ramiro and his co-authors provide a more detailed analysis.6 Studying the political programmes of left political parties since the 1940s, they have divided these parties into two categories: traditional and new left parties. The traditional parties are those that focus on issues such as anti-imperialism, labour, social justice, economic planning, and nationalism with a Marxist analysis, while the new left parties are those for which the centre of their politics are issues such as democracy, peace, environmentalism, or the rights of social minorities.

    For example, left parties with highly traditional rhetoric are the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), while on the other side there are the Nordic left parties. Interestingly, Izquierda Unida and Italy’s communist parties (the Party of Communist Refoundation and the Party of Italian Communists) fall into the category of the new left since 1989 and 1994 respectively, although they are only at the edge of this category.

    Interestingly, in comparing the type of voters, the study reveals that traditional and new left parties do not differ in terms of their voters’ age, gender, city or country location, class consciousness, or union membership. However, the researchers did find that the voters of the new left parties are more professionally qualified and less religious than those of the traditional parties. The studies also reveal that new left voters are more moderate, less Eurosceptic, and are more dissatisfied over issues of democracy.

    In short, it seems that these discursive transformations have to do with phenomena such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, which has reduced the traditional or orthodox component of parties, and the economic and social transformations that have given greater importance to issues that go beyond the capital-labour contradiction. But, as the study always bears in mind, neither the traditional parties nor the new left are clearly connected with the popular classes that they both claim, in one way or another, to represent.

    The Spanish case

    It seems clear that what we need to explore is the emergence of Podemos as a party that belongs to the anti-capitalist group, because it in fact is a member of the GUE/NGL. One can assume, however, that its characterisation as a populist party – with a discourse based on the dichotomy caste versus people – and its programme – very focused on concerns of the immaterial kind – would place it among parties of the new left. What interests us, however, is to explore the differences that may exist between IU and Podemos voters.

    As has been said above, it is true that the popular classes do not vote for Izquierda Unida, but they also do not vote for other radical parties like Podemos. The unemployed, pensioners, and workers of the domestic sphere are an important niche of voters for the Spanish two-party systems and particularly the Popular Party. This group of course constitutes a small part of the electoral base of radical parties.

    However, the emergence of Podemos in 2014 is a unique phenomenon in Europe where populism has so far been essentially connected with the extreme right. Why has Podemos emerged as a radical left party when Izquierda Unida was theoretically already occupying that place?

    One possibility is to think that Podemos has reached the same audience – that is, globalisation’s losers – as the populist right-wing parties have elsewhere in Europe. The voter profile for those parties is: unemployed, low-skilled, highly exposed to international economic competition. However, research shows no evidence that Podemos is the party of globalisation’s losers. In fact, Podemos is no more attractive to them than IU is. Moreover, Podemos has as much support as IU does from highly skilled people.

    The only small difference is that Podemos has greater acceptance among Eurosceptics and among non-voters. At the same time, Podemos also has more support among those who declare no ideology. It has reached people who see themselves as being outside the left-right axis. Interestingly, Podemos has a huge acceptance, more than IU, among ultra-left people, though it has also deeply penetrated more moderate left milieus.

    Another possibility is that we are dealing here with dissatisfied voters who are skilled but fear losing their jobs or becoming more precarious. Indeed, research has found that with this voter profile the probability of voting for Podemos increases much more than does voting for IU.

    The final group of possibilities has to do with the profile of the protest vote. This involves a vote that reflects dissatisfaction with democracy or the specific economic situation. We said that the new left parties are often more characterised by concerns of a democratic nature and intangible issues. What researchers reveal is that between IU and Podemos voters there are no differences in terms of patriotic attitude (despite Podemos’s attempt to appropriate that space), and yet there is evidence that there are more centralist voters (who want to preserve Spain’s political unity), in terms of territorial administration, who are inclined to vote Podemos rather than IU.

    Finally, the researchers have found no evidence that Podemos and IU voters differ in their worry about the economic situation. But where there were differences was regarding the view of the political situation and perception of the government and the opposition, since Podemos voters show a much greater level of dissatisfaction. This supports the hypothesis that Podemos voters are more anti-mainstream than IU voters and more concerned with issues of democracy.

    In short, research seems to show that Podemos’s success in its electoral competition with IU has been its channelling of the anti-mainstream and anti-elite profile of the party, along with a protest vote that includes not only democratic issues but unmet expectations of the most skilled people. I venture to say that this is more targeted to the middle classes frustrated by the impact of the crisis and by recent economic and political transformations than in the case of IU. However, it is difficult to guess anything more than this.


    Among these ideas there are some elements that stand out.

    First, and most troubling, is that no radical or anti-capitalist party has managed to reach the popular classes and become its representative, in the sense of being its mirror. On the contrary, support for radical parties has more to do with cultural and ideological issues, while as more and more social groups are hit by the crisis and globalisation they continue to be orphans in relation to the left. In many parts of Europe, these sectors are tempted by far-right parties in particular, which pose a real threat to democracy.

    Second, we should note that Podemos has not reached these sectors despite its left-wing populist strategy of aiming precisely at this objective. What Podemos has achieved that is new is to attract ideologically moderate or non-voters on the basis of protest voting or unfulfilled expectations rather than to connect with the popular classes. The rest of its space is, essentially, the same as that of the traditional voters of IU.

    Third, IU and Podemos belong to the same political family despite being different political projects. Both belong to the radical or anti-capitalist left, and both have a discourse and programme that includes elements of the so-called new left, which goes beyond the capital-labour conflict. The emergence of Podemos, however, has created tensions within IU which had shifted back to traditional left-wing positions as an intuitive form of electoral protection. But contrary to certain clichés, the ideological element – class consciousness and union membership – remain relevant variables in support for parties, possibly including Podemos.

    Fourth, although these points are clear, some semantic discussions about the historical subject – whether the working class or citizens – and arguments over symbolic points of reference – hammer and sickle, acronyms, etc. – are really liturgical because none of them are anchored in the everyday reality of the popular classes and their problems. That would explain why in IU, and perhaps also in Podemos, we occasionally see currents wrap themselves in last century’s rhetoric of red flags while when they turn to the practical level they resort to a politics that is deeply eclectic, which in the end amounts essentially to revisionism.

    Fifth, a notable difference between IU and Podemos voters involves the vision of the political regime. It would appear that the most anti-regime, anti-mainstream, and anti-establishment voters have so far opted for Podemos because IU was, in the public’s consciousness, closely connected to the classic political parties that have underpinned the political regime that is now tottering. This is normal, not only because of the different histories of IU and Podemos but because IU has participated in several social democratic governments in the past and also because there is a thorn in the side of the Communist Party (PCE) called Eurocommunism that advocates economic alternatives without political ones. This trend, or soul, within IU is deaf to concepts like regime crisis or constituent process and, consequently, has not understood anything that has happened in recent years.

    Sixth, it is impossible to foresee future developments at the electoral level. Podemos is not a coherent political force (with strong incoherence at the discourse level); it has articulated alliances based on electoral interests rather than discursive coherence, going, as it has for example, from centralist patriotism to multi-nationalism in hardly a month, or first denouncing the idea of a left-right axis and then inserting it into its public discourse according to the needs of the moment. Voters might become disoriented. At the same time, IU is in a process of renewal looking for a mix between the tradition of the labour movement and the new social movements (that is, the new left as defined above).

    In any case, in conclusion, it seems clear that despite the electoral competition between Podemos and IU neither has done its homework in terms of the construction of a social base – again, as I insist, a social base and not just an electoral base. It is a job that someone has to do, since it is the only thing that can transform society in a real way. Knitting social networks of mobilised and conscious people together around social conflict is the only way to connect to the popular classes with political organisations, which must also have mechanisms of democratic representation. Perhaps the best example of combining presence in the conflict with political education is that of the PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipotecas). This organisation plays the role of collective intellectual as defined by Gramsci, which is clearly what some of us think is needed to achieve our goals of working- class emancipation.

    So we have a task ahead of us: to equip ourselves with an instrument that fulfils these functions, that is, which is useful for the popular classes. And this instrument is, in my opinion, far beyond what both IU and Podemos currently are. It is in fact what we might identify with the broad concept of popular unity. Or said differently, and at the risk of being tiresome, it is not about a battle of acronyms in an election but class struggle on the ground – even if some, on both sides, seem more intent on being executive directors of party-brands, with their tactical manoeuvres and changing liturgies according to the ups and downs in the political stock exchange, than creating political organisations for social transformation. And I say that we will have to be more patriots of the class than of the party, because otherwise we risk being mere accessories of this political-economic system based on exploitation.


    1. This article was originally published in the Journal Nuestra Bandera Vol 1 (2016).
    2. David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, London: Profile Books, 2010.
    3. Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future, Chichester: Wiley, 2015. 
    4. Luís Ramiro, ‘Support for Radical Left Parties in Western Europe: Social Background, Ideology and Political Orientations’, European Political Science Review, Vol. 8.1 (2016), pp. 1-23.
    5. Owen Jones, Chavs. The Demonization of the Working Class, Verso: London, 2011.
    6. Raul Gómez, Laura Morales, and Luís Ramiro, ‘Varieties of Radicalism: Examining the Diversity of Radical Left Parties and Voters in Western Europe’, West European Politics, 39.2 (2015), pp. 351-379.

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