The left, as the current experiment in Latin America indicates, has much more to offer than the right
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
As the depth of the global financial crisis becomes clear, numerous fallouts are coming to the fore. In the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America, unemployment rates are higher than at any time since the stagflation of the 1970s. Financial institutions and big manufacturers continue to flounder despite the infusion of unthinkable amounts of cash into financial markets by governments of all stripes. More bankruptcies are widely expected.
Social disaffection is widespread. Towards the end of last year, a youth rebellion gripped Athens and other urban centres in Greece. For a few days public administration was completely paralysed. While order has since been restored, the crisis of the existing socio-political order is intensifying at a dramatic pace. Across Europe sales of Karl Marx's writings have increased ten-fold.
The latest upheaval is taking place in France. A successful general strike is likely to be followed by more militant actions in coming days. France is home to arguably the best organised working class movement in the western world, which has not been undermined as much by the neo-liberal onslaught as its counterparts in other European countries. However, the undertones of the French strike demand further attention.
Observers of France will know that tensions between the white majority and a rapidly growing immigrant population (hailing primarily from Muslim North Africa) erupted a couple of years ago in the shape of mass riots on the outskirts of Paris. As a general rule working class movements can tend towards xenophobia in times of crisis, especially where highly visible and oppressed minority populations are to be found. The right-wing narrative posits immigrants as stealers of jobs that rightfully belong to native workers.
The global financial crisis is at least partially explained by fact that capital has been given complete freedom to enter and exit national economies, thereby ensuring maximum profits for financial speculators. In contrast, labour is not allowed free entry and exit, immigration laws having become increasingly more draconian over the past two decades or so. The logic is obvious: immigrant labour from the third world inevitably works more, for less, than local unionised workers. There are also demographic concerns; for example, in the United States immigrants from Central America have become the biggest minority community in the country. Within a decade or so, whites will no longer be the majority of the population of the US.
In France there has been a huge uproar about the wearing of hijab (veil) in the public sphere, particularly in schools. State regulations prevent the wearing of head-dress in educational institutions, and this has been challenged by Muslim immigrant communities who argue that restrictions on hijab constitute an encroachment on fundamental rights, including the right to freely practice religion. Such contradictions will continue to emerge with increased immigration.
Far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen incited hatred against immigrant workers as one of the planks of his presidential campaign in 2006 which he lost to the also rightist Nicolas Sarkozy (who, incidentally, had initiated major legislation against immigration as the interior minister). In Austria, the far right has also made major gains. Where the left is weak or discredited and cannot build bridges between local unionised and immigrant workers, the right is able to make major gains. Indeed, the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s was a function of corporatist strategies by the state in which exclusivist nationalism replaced the expansive ideologies of the left. Then too, the structural context was an economic and cultural crisis precipitated by the First World War.
The present crisis is only now beginning to unfold. It remains to be seen whether left forces can organise themselves to present an alternative to the right. The stock of both is likely to rise as the legitimacy of the existing socio-political order is further eroded. Outside of the first world, there are also conflicting signs. In Latin America, yet another presidential election – in El Salvador – has recently been won by a leftist. In the Muslim world, it is the religious right that continues to make gains. The question of who will emerge the stronger is, of course, a contextual one. But it is also a question of who is able to provide a meaningful alternative to the present system.
Here the answer is clear. The right – in Europe, Muslim countries and elsewhere – simply does not have any solution. The religious right invokes a mythical past, while the Le Pen-type right blames others for the problem. Neither is able to offer a viable model to fix the problem. This is not to suggest that the left has a foolproof plan, but as the current experiment in Latin America indicates, it has much more to offer than the right.
Capitalism will of course seek to ride out the crisis. And where there are no challengers to the system – and I do not put the right into this category – the chances are that the system will survive in a slightly modified form. The United States is the primary example in this regard. In the two-party system that prevails in that country, there is simply no space for a third party, and this is why the Obama administration will be able to make do with bail-out plans and moralistic pleas for 'reform'.
In Pakistan, we are seeing the rise of a state-sponsored Islamic 'alternative' that exploits long-standing class and other inequalities. It is a moot point whether the Islamists continue to be covertly backed by the state. The point is that ordinary working people want change and the Islamists are the only obvious force on the political horizon that speaks about change (notwithstanding Nawaz Sharif's recent exhortations to this effect). I believe that the rightists – here and abroad – will be exposed sooner rather than later. What comes afterwards is anybody's guess. Or perhaps I should say that it will depend on whether the left reconstitutes itself as a meaningful force. Marx has become a bestseller. What better time than now?